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Review: Ode to Canada in Matthew Rankin’s wacky funhouse reverie ‘The Twentieth Century’

Dan Beirne in the movie "The Twentieth Century."
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

One’s knowledge of Canadian political history is less essential to enjoying Winnipeg-born experimental filmmaker Matthew Rankin’s perverse period reverie “The Twentieth Century” than being receptive to a fevered imagination enamored with bygone cinema and gleefully crude satire. Rankin’s microbudget funhouse is a warped faux biopic of hallowed Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King when he was young, callow and ambitious, and the culturally split country was “at the dawn of an Extreme Age.” Think Guy Maddin as the long-lost seventh Python. But it’s also one of the more vivid and amusing excursions in a year marked by unclassifiable realities and the need for diverting art.

Using a beautifully boxy 16mm frame masterfully painted with silent-nostalgic grain and tint by cinematographer Vincent Biron, writer-director Rankin and his art department deploy a wonderland of lo-fi matte, exposure and set-construction effects. What they conjure is a kooky, kinky 1899 both Expressionist and Victorian, populated by a wide array of eccentrics and archetypes, and played with melodramatic verve by a gender- and color-blind cast. Aside from our questing, face-punchable protagonist King (a pitch-perfect Dan Beirne) — beholden to dreams of leadership and visions of romance with the governor-general’s harp-playing soldier daughter, Ruby (Catherine Saint-Laurent) — we also meet his snarling rival (Brent Skagford), overbearing mother (Louis Negin), a torch-carrying nurse (Sarianne Cormier), and the keeper of King’s darkest secret, pleasure-stifling quack Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan). Along the way there are feats of Canada-specific skill, dashed promises, a march to war, calls for peace, rude awakenings, ruder medical techniques and even a heroic ice-skate beheading.

Amidst all the artisan silliness, much of which pokes fun at Canada’s tolerance for disappointment, Rankin does have something to say about the unhealthy roil of demonizing nationalism, even if one of the messengers is a mustachioed, compassionate Quebec mystic hatched from an egg. But that’s just one of the many delightfully oddball splendors in “The Twentieth Century,” equal parts larkish cinema curio, historical fantasy/spoof and sweeping, loving Canuck-Canuck-joke.

'The Twentieth Century'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Available Nov. 20 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres

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