Film Review: The Exception

Intrigue swirls around the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm before a meeting with Nazi leaders in a capable World War II romance with memorable acting.
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A romantic thriller set at the start of World War II, The Exception handily beats expectations. Directed by stage vet David Leveaux, it's a subtle, low-key but engrossing movie that leaves plenty of room for superb acting.

Based on Alan Judd's novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss, the screenplay by Simon Burke lets details about the story seep out slowly. Disgraced Wehrmacht Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is sent to Utrecht to guard former German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), living in comfortable exile on an estate with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) and a staff of both Germans and locals.

Brandt starts his duties by raping a newly hired maid, Mieke de Jong (Lily James). Or was she seducing him? Weirdly compliant, Mieke is soon forcing herself on Brandt, engaging him in a surreptitious affair that could get them both in trouble.

Meanwhile, local Gestapo creep Dietrich (Mark Dexter) is closing in on a spy ring targeting Wilhelm. And Hermine and her staff, including Wilhelm's aide-de-camp Sigurd von Islemann (Ben Daniels), prepare for a visit from Hitler confidant Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan). The Princess fully expects Himmler to announce that Wilhelm will be returned to his throne in Berlin.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Mieke is a spy, or that she is Jewish. But the suspense in The Exception comes from what people will do, not what they know. What matters is how Brandt, who has already suffered a crisis of conscience fighting in Poland, will react when he follows Mieke to her village contact.

Or when Himmler starts spouting new ways to eliminate Jews and other undesirables over dinner. Brandt may be the apocryphal "good German," but he's no fool. Standing up to Dietrich, or to Himmler, will just get him killed. Part of the pleasure in watching The Exception is how Brandt and Mieke finesse their way out of increasingly taut situations.

Leveaux doesn't quite finesse the threadbare aspects of Judd's plot. The frequently soggy romance scenes, the caricatured Nazis, the drawn-out searches and chases tend to drag the movie down to Allied territory. But The Exception soars with its acting, in particular the effortlessly spectacular Christopher Plummer.

As Wilhelm, Plummer seems to expand and contract in the same scene, displaying blazing, imperious fury before age and infirmity shrink him to an elderly shell. The actor twinkles, fumes, spouts dangerous nonsense, flirts roguishly, and wrests every scene away from the other performers. Except McTeer, who is fully his equal as a determined, vengeful aristocrat confined only by the rules of etiquette.

Courtney tends to fade a bit before such brilliance, although he manages to make his character seem consistently unpredictable. Lily James, last seen onscreen as the very assured star of Cinderella, is always appealing, not always completely believable.

Leveaux makes some odd choices, like the Morse code that plays over one sex scene, and rushes through a few moments rather than letting tension build. But he has assembled a plush, satisfying version of a romantic thriller, an old-fashioned one that knows how to entice viewers without disappointing them.

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