Trying to make a movie set at the height of World War II where your lead character is a Nazi might appear to be a challenge, especially if you want to create any sort of sympathy for him. That’s one of the biggest hurdles facing The Exception, a WWII drama from accomplished theater director David Leveaux that’s based on Alan Jadd’s 2003 historical fiction novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. There’s also little question that the movie is frequently saved by offering another joyously entertaining performance by Christopher Plummer.
Jai Courtney plays German Capt. Stefan Brandt, sent to the Netherlands to act as a bodyguard for the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Janet McTeer). Moving to the Kaiser’s mansion in the country, Brandt begins a romance with their pretty maid Mieke (Lily James), who Brandt later learns is Jewish. It also happens that she’s the British spy Brandt’s been instructed to find, so once their romance gets serious, he’s forced to make the tough decision.
Taking place in similar territory that’s already been well covered by Paul Verhoeven’s WWII films Black Book and Soldier of Orange, The Exception may require some existing historical knowledge about the power structure in Germany when Adolf Hitler rose to power in the mid-1930s. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s easy to understand why much of the Kaiser’s time is spent hoping he’ll be allowed to return to Berlin and the German people who still presumably love him.
As much as The Exception could work as a vehicle to get Courtney taken more seriously as a dramatic actor, it’s really more about how well he interacts with far superior actors. As can be expected from the amazing third act, which continues the line of juicy scenes Plummer has enjoyed late in his career, his portrayal of the Kaiser will be a bigger takeaway from the film. He brings a suitably light charm to the character that counterbalances his fits of rage and the serious nature of a world that’s currently at war.
Similarly, the gorgeous Lily James continues to impress with her own range, creating an even more intriguing enigma of her character in the way she interacts with Courtney, making you wonder if Mieke is deliberately using the young soldier to achieve her own goals, or if there’s actual love and affection. Either way, their love scenes together are quite steamy, and their relationship is convincing enough to hold things together.
The film is moving along at a fairly steady clip based on their relationship when we learn that the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, will be arriving at the Kaiser’s home with an important message. Wilhelm presumes he’s coming to invite him to return to Berlin. When Himmler does show up, and he’s played by British character actor Eddie Marsan, it just makes the film that much more interesting leading into its third act.
Leveaux’s theater background is evident from the way he sets up the interactions between the characters in each scene. He never tries to make more of this simple story than necessary, keeping most of the movie in and around the Wilhelm manor.
Calling the movie The Exception isn’t that much better a title than “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.” It’s just so on the nose, especially when James’ character outright tries to console Brandt after a particularly bothersome interaction with Himmler, calling him the exception to the rule when it comes to Nazis. He doesn’t have a response, because what do you say to something like that?
It’s important to always keep in mind this is historical fiction, never meant for you to presume that anything in history happened exactly as it did in the movie. Remembering that this is meant to be a story about fictional characters and events based around real ones will make it easier to accept any credibility issues.
Ultimately, it’s a solid historical drama with decent performances and characters that veers far enough away from the normal WWII archetypes to not feel redundant, even if we’ve already had far too many wartime romance films in the past year.
The Exception is now available on Direct TV, but it will be released in select cities on June 2 following its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.