Keeping in spirit with quiet, independent level (or sporting the feeling of independent level) productions picked up and released by A24 Entertainment (Moonlight, A Ghost Story), The Exception remains a somewhat modest war story. The film follows Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) during the onset of World War II as he is assigned to protect Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) while suspicion of a Dutch spy’s infiltration grows. An affair blooms between Brandt and Mieke (Lily James), a servant, though her real identity and intentions come into question as their relationship grows.
Clocking in at 107 minutes, it manages to pass at a great speed despite wavering interest of onscreen events. Director David Leveaux made a name as a British theatre director long ago. This is his first feature. While it’s regularly obvious when a story originally set for the stage–or helmed by someone native to the stage–is transitioned to the screen, The Exception feels grand, using the dynamic of Wilhelm II’s home brilliantly. The story, focusing on interpersonal relationships between sets of characters, feels bigger, with the dread and paranoia of war taking precedent.
Performance and direction remain outstanding, though there are three people really carrying the story from beginning to end. Plummer’s role as Wilhelm II is endlessly entertaining. The Exception could very well have been a one-man show from Plummer as Wilhelm and retained the same level of excitement. Janet McTeer (Me Before You) assumes the role of Princess Hermine, Wilhelm’s wife. McTeer is outstanding as her representation of how Hermine’s internal conflict regarding acceptance with the state of Germany, and more importantly the immorality of the S.S.’s actions, build and build alongside the primary conflict.
The third is Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan) as Henrich Himmler. The resemblance is uncanny as he steps out of the backseat of an S.S. Vehicle, and even stronger when every word and every look eddies pure evil. The convergence of Plummer, McTeer, and Marsan alone makes The Exception worth watching; yet they’re not the main point of interest for the story.
Then comes the affair between Courtney and James. With strong performances and considerable chemistry, it’s robotic (and seemingly at the fault of the screenplay, rather than the cast/director). Perhaps that was the intention at first, with an early sex scene where Courtney commands James to disrobe, but while there is a warmth forming somewhere within, the predictability never wanes; interest heightened only when Plummer enters into the confines of their relationship.
Successful as a period piece, The Exception never made me question the validity of events portrayed, despite being fiction, adapted from Alan Judd’s novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss (2003). The love story is questionable, but manages to stay engaging. The Kaiser in his liaisons with then-current-day Germany remain the strongest area in Leveraux’s film.