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Chris Knight: Canada's 10th PM was a total oddball — at least thats what Matthew Rankin wants you to believe

In the absence of an article from Vanity Fair (Richard Jewell), Esquire (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), New York (Hustlers) or the Senate Intelligence Committee (The Report), I often find a stroll down Wikipedia Lane to be a useful adjunct to films based on real people.

But research William Lyon Mackenzie King at your peril before wading into Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, about the young man who would eventually become Canada’s 10th Prime Minister. King had his share of actual oddities, like the fact that he had conversations with Wilfrid Laurier and Franklin Roosevelt AFTER they had died.

But Googling King won’t turn up any references to his brief engagement to a French-Canadian nurse, his treatment at the Vancouver-based Onanist Sanitarium, or his father’s puffin, which the old man taught to say: “Felicitations!” For all this (and more!) you’ll need to watch the Bizarro Heritage Minute that is Rankin’s first feature, made after more than a decade spent churning out such offbeat Canadian-themed shorts as Hydro-Lévesque and Negativipeg.

Rankin’s film takes place at the dawn of the 20th century, as the milquetoast King (Dan Beirne) spars with fellow politicos Arthur Meighan and Henry Albert Harper in such Canadian sports as waiting your turn, identifying trees by their smell, and writing your name in the snow. He yearns for Ruby Elliott (Catherine St-Laurent), but is also attracted to his mom’s nurse. And to his mom.

Rankin gives his film an antiquated look and a narrow aspect ratio that recalls the work of fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin. And in fact Maddin regular Louis Negin plays King’s mom, just one of several gender-swapped roles.

The finished product looks as though it could have been released in the early days of the talkies, with the caveat that to have screened this film during one of King’s terms of office might have been considered high treason. The passage of decades makes the humour more palatable, even when it cuts not just at our nation’s history but its character.

For me, the line that hit closest to home was the advice to the future PM given by Seán Cullen as the warmongering Governor-General Lord Muto: “Give the people hope and there will be endless disappointment, but fill them with nightmares and they will follow you straight into hell.” Only Canadians are allowed to laugh at that one.

3.5 stars

The Twentieth Century opens Dec. 13 in Toronto, Dec. 20 in Montreal, and Jan. 11 in (where else?) Winnipeg.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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