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At one point a character in The Exception, a new film that takes place during World War II, states, “you think because he is old, he is not important?” about a former German Kaiser, which seems to sum up much about the film’s attitude toward the war itself, that despite its age in history, there is still much to be learned. That is certainly true, and movies will continue to explore truths within, and while The Exception rarely feels like a war film, it does offer a glimpse into a chapter in that conflict few have shed light on, fictionalized or not.
In the early years of the WWII, Nazi Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced SS officer who has failed in his post in Poland, is assigned a new position in the Netherlands where the former Kaiser, Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) resides in a palatial estate. Reports suggest a British spy has infiltrated the domestic staff. Upon arriving, Brant is instructed to refrain from fraternizing with the women workers, but he is immediately drawn to the young and beautiful Mieke (Lily James), and the two begin a secret sexual affair, even after she confesses she is Jewish. With pressures from all sides, Brandt must keep his balance or lose everything.
Directed by David Leveaux, The Exception is, as many in the genre, a love story at heart between two who are by the very nature of the story forbidden to be together. There are no secrets about who the spy is and so Leveaux, and screenwriter Simon Burke, based on the book The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, deal more with the suspense in keeping it from everyone else in the story, succeeding mostly as it escalates. While it takes very seriously the plot, as it should, it can’t help but titillate with some early graphic nudity (both male and female) before ebbing to more standard moments with discreetly draped sheets and clothes. These clearly staged encounters, while crucial to establishing the love affair, are nonetheless, the dips in an otherwise deeply satisfying and well-acted film simply because they lack honesty.
That said, Courtney, bulging in and out of his tight uniform, grows greatly into the role, giving what amounts to his best performance, if not most grounded. He’s a block of stone with numerous cracks, and convinces throughout, as does James, who is effectively distressed though there isn’t much chemistry or depth between them, which strips some of the investment in the film’s latter more urgent moments. In support are Eddie Marsan as Heinrich Himmler, in a truly terrifying turn and an electrifying Janet McTeer as the Kaiser’s wife, Princess Hermine, who steals nearly every scene she is in, a woman torn between the grandeur of her former life and her loyalties to a new Germany. However it is Plummer’s show, hitting all the highest notes. He is endlessly watchable.
The Exception is a film of high ambition and Leveaux, in his feature film debut, keeps it compelling. While it lacks the scale and weight of many in the genre, it has impact, mostly due to how well-defined these characters are and how important they are to each other, both as friends and enemies.
Movie description: The Exception is a 2017 drama about a German soldier who falls in love with Jewish woman while investigating a former Kaiser in Holland.
Director(s): David Leveaux
Actor(s): Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer