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Film review: Lily James and Christopher Plummer in 'The Exception'

The Exception

This WWII era drama is a fictionalised account of Kaiser Wilhelm’s final days, and the political turmoil taking place around him. It might have done better to stop there, and resign itself to being a historical drama centred on the interesting central character of the Kaiser. Instead, the story layers an unlikely romance over the espionage, in keeping with the novel on which the script is based: The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, by Alan Judd.

In the early years of the Second World War, the aging Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) are in exile in the Netherlands, kept in relative luxury by the new German government. They are being saved in case they become politically useful to the Third Reich, a fact of which the Princess is painfully aware. The Kaiser seems to take a casual attitude to his own position; but his vagueness may be only superficial.

A young German officer, Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is assigned to guard the Kaiser, an assignment understood to imply spying on his actions, his visitors, and his contacts. The German government has suspicions that either the Kaiser, or someone in his household, is involved with the Dutch resistance. Brandt is attracted to a young Dutch housemaid new to the Kaiser’s residence, Mieke deJong (Lily James). They begin an affair almost immediately, in a straightforward manner apparently designed not so much to express passion as to minimise the required screen time. They move from a hasty sexual liaison to devoted love with equal efficiency, sacrificing credibility on the way. Mieke’s real intentions are kept mysterious at first, suggesting she is seeking something from Brandt – possibly protection, or revenge – by making her affectless and cold even during love scenes, which further limits the effectiveness of the romantic subplot.

Their relationship becomes entangled with the politics of the day as one after another problematic fact about Mieke is revealed, leaving both her and Brandt caught between conflicting loyalties. Both of them, but particularly loyal Nazi supporter Brandt, are forced to reconsider their fundamental assumptions and make painful choices. Their struggle is plausible enough, but the efforts to bring home a lesson about personal ethics is unfortunately just a bit heavy handed.

However, it is not the love story that is the highlight of the film, but the secondary plot involving the Kaiser. Christopher Plummer is wonderful as the elderly, deposed leader, deftly revealing a complex personality who is by turns philosophical, mischievous, and tragic. Age is clearly catching up with him: he becomes vague at times; and often flies into furious rants over the loss of his kingdom, and against those he blames. We can also see glimpses of him as a young man, when he flirts with one of the maids, or reminisces about earlier days with his wife. His resentment at his current position as paid anachronism, which he tries to joke about to cover his indignation, is offset by a thoughtful resignation to his fate.This fictionalised version of the Kaiser is a fascinating character, beautifully and colourfully played by Christopher Plummer, whose performance is easily matched by the great Janet McTeer as his long-suffering wife. The rest of the cast, although perfectly competent, tend to fade into the background in comparison. The one exception is a pointed scene involving a visit by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) to the Kaiser’s residence, during which the Kaiser and Princess Hermine are inescapably faced with the realities of Nazi policy and their involvement with it. Marsan as Himmler gives a painfully effective presentation of what has been called the banality of evil.

The story becomes suspenseful as the German agents, who are a continuous part of the background scenery throughout, continue to home in on the suspected underground operatives. As they close in on the local branch of the Dutch underground, danger threatens several of the main characters. At this point, the romantic and the political storylines merge in a tense episode of evasion and misdirection, culminating in a dramatic escape scene, all of which are powerful and well managed.

The Exception is theatre director and multiple Tony Award nominee David Leveaux’s first film. It is overall an excellent debut; any flaws lie primarily in the screenplay, not in the directing or the performances. While the musical score is often melodramatic and intrusive, the look of the film is distinctive and appealing. It’s a good effort and an enjoyable movie.