‘The Exception’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

The Exception - Still 1 - H - 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
How do you solve a problem like the Kaiser?

Christopher Plummer, Lily James and Jai Courtney star as people caught up in the whirlwinds of history during World War II.

Theater director David Leveaux (from the Orlando Bloom-starring production of Romeo and Juliet and the 2011 Broadway revival of Arcadia) transitions to film with The Exception, a competent if calculated WWII-set drama. Unfolding largely in occupied Holland in 1940, this adaptation of Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss plays like a more insipid version of Black Book. Like Paul Verhoeven’s audacious 2006 epic, it also features a torrid romance between a slinky Dutch-Jewish lady spy (Lily James from Cinderella) and a Nazi stud-muffin (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad) but with oddly bland results. Here, the twosome meet cute while they are both working for the retired Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer), revealed to be a rather cuddly old man once you get beyond the self-aggrandizing monologues and the anti-Semitism. If conditions and campaign were handled just so, Plummer’s twinkly, impish turn could make him a long-odds contender for awards recognition.

When the poet Sylvia Plath wrote that “every woman adores a Fascist,” she probably had someone like Courtney’s Capt. Stefan Brandt in mind. With his Aryan eyes bright blue, concrete abs disfigured by a scar just painful-looking enough to make him sympathetic, and an ineffable air of Weltschmerz, he’s certainly one dreamy Panzer-man. It transpires Brandt was disciplined for refusing to do something sufficiently Nazi in Poland. Having escaped a court martial or worse, he is sent to the remote Netherlands estate of Doorn to take command of security for Wilhelm, the retired Kaiser of the Second Reich (dismantled after the defeat of WWI).

Wilhelm has been living in exile for some time with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, on delightfully piquant form). Ever since Hitler’s ascendance, the couple have had hopes they will be recalled to Berlin to help rule the Fatherland, and they take the arrival of Stefan as a sign that the joyous day is imminent. In fact, the Nazis have no such intention; it’s just that they suspect there is a British spy in the village near Doorn transmitting intelligence via radio from the newly invaded country, and they hope Brandt can help to flush him out.

Although the local pastor (Kris Cuppens) is in indeed sending messages across the Channel with a Morse key, there is yet another spy even closer to home: Mieke de Jong (James), a doe-eyed chambermaid who recently joined the Kaiser’s household and has already proved to be a bit of a favorite with the roguish monarch. Mieke has managed to hide a gun in her room, her Jewish ethnicity, and the fact that her parents and husband were recently murdered by the Nazis. And yet, practically from the moment Brandt meets her, she’s willing to drop her panties and have hot, rough sex with him. Perhaps Mieke is hoping to seduce and therefore control Brandt, or maybe she has some more complicated, masochistic reasons to surrender to him (shades of Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter), or maybe she just fancies him rotten. Or all three at once.

The plot half-heartedly teases out whether or not Brandt will turn out to be a loyal son of the Reich or more of a mensch once he finds out the truth about Mieke, but viewers familiar with the rules of romantic drama will guess where this is going as quickly as the time it takes for a doodlebug bomb to land. In order to spin out some more suspense, new threats are generated out of whether Mieke’s role in the resistance will be revealed by another source, and what will happen when creepy, dead-eyed Heinrich Himmler (the incomparable Eddie Marsan) comes to visit.

Always an endearing presence, James is very watchable in the central role although the part could have been etched with more interesting shades of grey, in the tradition of Rampling or Carice van Houten in Black Book. But both she and Courtney are lovely to look at and suit the costume designer Daniela Ciancio’s finely calibrated period outfits. Conveniently, Brandt apparently belongs to a branch of the German military that doesn’t have a swastika on his uniform, so that’s how you can tell he’s a good guy. As for Plummer, all crinkly smiles and puffed up chest, he once again sets himself the task of proving, fifty years after The Sound of Music, that not all Germans and Austrians were Nazis at heart. 

Production companies: An Egoli Tossell Film, Ostar production in association with Alton Road Productions, Silver Reel, uMedia, Lotus Entertainment, Film House Germany
Cast: Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens
Director: David Leveaux
Screenwriter: Simon Burke, based on the novel ‘The Kaiser’s Last Kiss’ by Alan Judd
Producers: Judy Tossel, Lou Pitt
Executive producers: Philip H. Geier Jr., Bill Haber, Bob Boyett, Eugene Beard, Claudia Bluemhuber, Florian Dargel, Irene Gall, Ian Hutchinson, Adrian Politowski, Gilles Waterkeyn, Bastien Sirodot, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Jens Meurer, Philip Moross, James Gibb, Christian Angermayer, Klemens Hallmann
Director of photography: Roman Osin
Production designer: Hubert Pouille
Costume designer: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Visual effects director: Christophe Ferrier
Casting: Julia Horgan
Sales: Lotus Entertainment
No rating, 107 minutes