Exception to the Reich: Noted theatre director David Leveaux makes feature debut with taut WWII thriller

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Immersed in a real world of endless bloodshed and violent warfare, viewers confront another invasion: that of the seasonal escalation of onscreen superhero and sci-fi battles. But many can take shelter this summer in an “exception,” by way of The Exception, A24/DirecTV’s and renowned British theatre director turned filmmaker David Leveaux’s entertaining, traditional World War II yarn. Relief for the battle-scarred lies in the fact that it’s not the Nazi atrocities or devastation but the people here—their nature and motives—that matter über alles.

Yet suspense lingers throughout and its thread pulls together an espionage thriller/romance that mixes historical fact with intriguing what-ifs and a terrific name cast that, depending on how the film performs, includes at least one plump hook of awards bait.

The film’s mixed bag of characters resembles what raging wars or classic British mysteries might throw together. With a mostly unifying setting that was no doubt comforting to the film’s theatre-trained director, the story’s key characters are gathered at war’s outbreak (1940, just after the Nazis take the Netherlands) at the lavish Dutch estate and chateau-like home-in-exile Huis Doorn near Utrecht of Germany’s last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II (a deliciously aristocratic, enigmatic Christopher Plummer) and socially ambitious wife Princess Hermine “Hermo” Reuss of Greiz (Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer), eager for the Nazis to return her husband back the throne he had to abandon when Germany lost the First World War.

Also at Huis Doorn are newly arrived Nazi Wehrmacht Captain Stefan Brandt (Australia’s Jai Courtney), whom the Nazis have dispatched to Huis Doorn to report on what the Kaiser is up to, and the Kaiser’s Dutch servant Mieke de Jong (Lily James, “Downton Abbey”’s frisky Lady Rose), who must hide that she is Jewish, is undercover for the Dutch Resistance and is tasked to somehow apprise the Kaiser that Winston Churchill, no less, is offering him sanctuary in England. To amp up matters: A romance ensues between Captain Brandt and Mieke, and SS Commander Heinrich Himmler (the remarkably versatile and ubiquitous Eddie Marsan) and his retinue show up for a stay at the estate to gauge the exiled former monarch’s royal intentions and assure all’s stable in this corner of the world that the Nazis plan to chew up.

The Exception, adapted from Alan Judd’s highly regarded 2003 historical fiction novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, is the feature directing debut of Leveaux, whose heralded West End production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead starring Daniel Radcliffe just ended its run. The project, which evolved over many years, began when Bill Haber (co-founder of CAA who later became a producer) asked Leveaux, already a prominent theatre director, if he could send him the story. Leveaux has an interest in German history (he worked and lived for several years in East Germany) and is a fan of World War II dramas and thrillers (whether war-themed films as different as the politically charged The Remains of the Day or unabashed thrillers like Eye of the Needle), so he warmed to the idea. As Leveaux recalls, “He sent me the book and an early screenplay which I read. I didn’t find the script particularly compelling, but when I read the book I realized that the story could be more character-driven. I gave Bill my views; for instance, what might these men be like beyond their uniforms, beyond their military and royal identities and how might the feminine presence of Mieke and who she was change both of them. Bill very graciously responded and suggested that I try my ideas with a new writer.”

The Exception screenwriter became Simon Burke, with whom Leveaux closely collaborated. “I was very involved,” the director says, “and at page one I identified the preoccupations that could make it interesting and Simon was off; he wrote the initial draft with incredible speed.”

Haber remained with The Exception as one of the film’s many executive producers. Reacting to a comment about so long a list, Leveaux quips, “Well, that’s the story of indie filmmaking today, isn’t it?”

Recognized as one of the theatre world’s finest directors, London-born Leveaux has worked on many major productions at major venues on both sides of the pond (the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, the Old Vic, the Almeida, the London Palladium, etc. in the U.K. and on Broadway and off). His plays, musicals and revivals have captured five Tony nominations and include works by Eugene O’Neill, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Additionally, Leveaux has directed a number of operas and spent a number of years in walled-off 1980s East Berlin, where he lived and directed theatre.

The Exception property seemed especially attractive to him, as it moves briskly along a clean narrative arc. But, as Leveaux acknowledges, there were challenges in maintaining equilibrium amongst an array of elements that include drama, suspense, romance, historical fact and what-ifs. Additionally, some unexpected moments of wit and humor come by way of Plummer’s otherwise starchy former German emperor, still mulling over a possible return to the throne that wife Hermo doggedly promotes. The addition of these few moments of levity required a delicate balance but also afforded the film’s recent world-premiere audience at the Tribeca Film Festival audible delights.

Beyond the various elements, Leveaux primarily saw two major genres—thriller and romance—that needed to work together. He elaborates: “I think part of the challenge was to hold together the different genres at the same time. Of course, there is a strong romantic artery to the film and that's not even exclusive to the two young lovers. It exists between the Kaiser and his wife, the Kaiser and his appreciation of this young servant girl, all those things are inherently romantic. But there's also a ticking clock, which is the machinery of a thriller. A particular mission has to be accomplished and the Kaiser needs to make a decision ultimately about whether or not he can be a part of this new Germany or not.”

As for what’s fact and what’s “if” in The Exception, historical accounts do have Wehrmacht troops dispatched to Huis Doorn right after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and the Kaiser did have a big Nazi visitor show up—Reichstag President (other big titles followed in ensuing years) Hermann Göring, not SS Commander Heinrich Himmler. No matter: Both were murderous thugs and debauchees given to excess. Marsan, as a chilling Himmler, is a menacing stand-in and has brought along a hot young mistress to warm him up.

Both Captain Brandt and servant Mieke were inventions inspired by those in Judd’s novel, as was the existence of a spy in the Kaiser’s midst. But it is historically accurate that Winston Churchill extended a clandestine invitation to the Kaiser for asylum in the U.K. Whether Mieke is able to achieve this and what the film’s title refers to are among its nice surprises.

Asked about the biggest differences he confronted in taking on film after years of directing theatre, Leveaux offers, “It was rhythm, the rhythm that actors need to be imbued with. The rhythms of the narratives are different, but in film rhythm is essential. So on a film set you have to be conscious of how the rhythm of a scene—achieved by camera and light—will fit in the film. I was lucky in having a DP [Roman Osin] who fully understood this so that we were shooting the same movie together.”

What most struck him about the difference in directing a film vs. theater is that in contrast to stage actors moving in three-dimensional space, “the key fact is that film has a two-dimensional purpose. So how you frame is your key emotional tool. This means you are negotiating between the framing and the lighting that defines your actors and action. In film, it’s a conspiracy between the camera and the actor.”

Leveaux was further helped by an important lesson in directing that he brought from the stage: “how you give a note to an actor. Every actor is different and in theatre his or her ongoing note is fundamental. But in film, because there’s so little time, the key is to be reductive with notes.”

Asked whether he had any “Euro-pudding” misgivings about telling The Exception’s story through English dialogue, in spite of the German and few Dutch characters, Leveaux says that he had no worries. “There’s a tradition now so we can feel comfortable. But what I did not want was that the actors sound like the upper classes of Europe. So there was the delicacy of suggesting a little bit of accent, as I didn’t want to give the impression that the architects of World War II came from the tearooms of RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the prestigious London drama school].”

Also challenging, he notes, was a story with three strands that had to skillfully be woven together. “I didn’t want a conventional World War II story, so I kept the war at the edge,” he explains. “I was interested in the strangeness of human motives, in the love and thriller stories coming together, and the love not being just that of Stefan and Mieke but that found in the Kaiser’s marriage and even in his bond with Ben Daniels [playing the Kaiser’s right-hand Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann]. We were juggling love stories because the film is a character piece but it also needs its ticking clock story.”

But how about those few moments of unexpected levity that Plummer’s Kaiser provides? Might they tip the fragile equilibrium of the organic story the film delivers? “It was a very delicate operation,” he admits, “but I was lucky with Christopher, as we agreed from the get-go that we didn’t want this to be his redemption story. So all the Kaiser’s bigotry and hubris and foolishness needed to be apparent. King Lear becomes progressively clear as a character and Christopher’s Kaiser also needed to be Lear-like in this respect. I’m deeply suspicious of solemnity pretending to be so serious. We knew we wanted that tonal thing alive in film. It gave his character dimension.”

Asked to what degree he and Burke stayed faithful to the novel, Leveaux notes, “Allowing the film to be its own piece proved to be a tricky task, as did balancing history with some fiction. But we know and we accept this [film] as a ‘what if.’ But you need to put your finger on the key things that matter and you can’t have a film leaning back on a book. It needs to be on its own feet and we didn’t want The Exception to be solemnly historic. Our purpose was to elucidate something about human nature. That was our bedrock. We were interested in male rigidity and the disruptive nature of the woman. And we wanted to show nationalism as a myth, whether its the Kaiser’s or National Socialism’s, and that it’s something less substantial than what those in power make it.”

Leveaux, who has worked frequently with acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard and counts him as a friend, cites the helpful advice Stoppard gave him. “You’re on the right path if you can reduce the film’s story to a postcard so that you can say what it is about. If you can do this, at least you have a useful guide. This is not a reductive exercise but the way to give clarity to purpose. My goal with The Exception was to make a film about how love conquers hate.”

Also a handsome production, The Exception benefits not just from the variety of lesser characters populating the story but also from its magnificent estate and forest-like grounds location in Belgium (standing in for the Netherlands as a realistic backdrop to the escalating war and recent Nazi Netherlands invasion).

The visuals are strong, but was Leveaux tempted to up the ante by inserting archival footage of so much recorded Nazi activity in 1940? He responds, “The idea came up and we thought about it but decided not to go down that path. I didn’t want to take texture from the characters or diminish their impact… It wasn’t so much war movies I was looking to for inspiration, but a big story about human beings with the epic event of World War II as background.”