by Peter J. O'Connell
The Exception. Released: June 2017. Runtime: 107 mins. MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language, and brief violence.
It's the spring of 1940, and Hitler's blitzkrieg is rolling across Europe. Holland has fallen and with it the estate where Kaiser Wilhelm II has been living in exile since being deposed 22 years earlier at the end of World War I. The elderly, sometimes splenetic, former emperor of Germany (Christopher Plummer) dresses formally in cutaway coat and wing-collar shirt—and sometimes in something from his extensive collection of military uniforms—but spends much of his time relaxing by splitting wood, feeding ducks, and flirting mildly with Mieke (Lily James), a pretty young Dutch maid.
A loyal aide (Ben Daniels) briefs the Kaiser daily on military developments, and the empress (Janet McTeer) runs the household with Teutonic rigor, while dreaming of a return of her husband to power—not likely as Nazis and royalists don't think much of each other. In fact, the Nazis send Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) and some troops to the estate in order to both guard and spy on the Kaiser. You see, resistance partisans and British agents are operating in the area. They may abduct the Kaiser—or, possibly, he may flee to Britain voluntarily in hopes of a restoration after the war. Such are the setting and situation addressed by screenwriter Simon Burke and director David Leveaux in The Exception, their version of Alan Judd's novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss.
Stefan Brandt is a conflicted protagonist. He is not a Nazi but a German patriot who wants to serve honorably in a war of army against army, but the atrocities that he witnessed earlier in Poland give him bad dreams. He despises the Gestapo and SS functionaries with whom he has to deal in his guard/spy assignment but tells Mieke that they are exceptions to German honor. She tells him: “They are the rule. You are the exception.”
Mieke becomes the center of the film's intrigues, both personal and political. Stefan at first takes a commanding role in a sexual relationship with her, but she soon becomes a commanding figure herself. Their relationship then becomes a truly romantic one rather than just an erotic one. Mieke, however, has her own agenda and hopes that Stefan will join her in it. Whether he will—and whether someone else also will—provides considerable suspense.
The movie challenges us to locate its characters on a scale from absolute evil through gradations of badness and goodness to positions worthy of admiration. There is no question as to who is at the bottom of this scale. It is SS head Heinrich Himmler, chillingly portrayed by Eddie Marsan, who pays a visit to the Kaiser. Himmler's idea of polite dinner table conversation is discussing various techniques for the mass killing of children.
The Kaiser, wonderfully played by Christopher Plummer, a cultural treasure of stage and screen (both big and small) for 65 years, is more complex, both charming for some personality traits and contemptible for some views. Courtney and James, playing characters near the top of the moral scale, give solid performances. David Leveaux's direction is efficient in handling The Exception's plot points and effective in making its moral and psychological points.