If a film captures my attention, respect, or admiration, I’m much more likely to be captivated, rather than stumbled, by any narrative twists.
Based on Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, first published in 2003, David Leveaux’s twist-filled film The Exception is set at a secluded estate in The Netherlands where Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) lives in exile with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) during the early days of World War II. The aged Kaiser is none too happy about his exile and is easily provoked into anger by any hint that he is to blame for his own circumstances.
Into this volatile situation strides SS Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), who was involved in some unspecified unpleasantness that called his fitness for service into question. Stefan is ordered to take charge of the Kaiser’s private bodyguard unit. He is informed that a British agent has been spotted in the area; if anything happens to the Kaiser, Stefan will be held personally responsible (i.e., executed).
As he arrives, Stefan takes notice of Mieke de Jong (Lily James), a new maid at the estate. That evening, she appears in his private quarters, whereupon he commands her to take off her clothes. The sexual act that follows is brief and fraught with peril.
The description also applies to the tense atmosphere that fills the estate and overflows into the nearby village. It’s 1940 and Germany has recently invaded The Netherlands, and so everyone is understandably anxious. Yet Stefan puts all that aside and fixates on Mieke; when she surprises him in his private quarters the following night, and orders him to take off his clothes in the same manner that he did, he is captivated and obeys.
Their relationship is primal rather than romantic, apparently driven by mad lust. It’s the aspect of the film that is the least believable, however. Why on earth would a young Dutch woman be attracted to a rather sullen German officer when her own people have just been invaded by his, and vice versa on the attraction front? It’s a rather curious affair, especially at first when we’re expected to believe that, in those war-torn circumstances, Romeo must have his Juliet.
Leaving that aside, Christopher Plummer offers a variety of treasures in his performance as the Kaiser. He has the unerring ability, shared by all great actors, of being able to snap instantly from a quiet pose into a rip-roaring, furious fount of resentment and then back again, all in the proper measure and without seeming indulgent.
As his wife, Janet McTeer embodies restrained aristocracy. She refuses to acknowledge that their status has changed in any way, and retains an air of self-assured superiority.
Lily James, known for playing bright and cheerful characters on TV’s Downton Abbey and on the big screen in Cinderella and Baby Driver, here dives deep into a character with hidden reservoirs of the darkest emotions. Her posture is stiff and precise; she always gives off an aura of fear, but underlined with purposeful determination.
Jai Courtney is well-suited to play an SS officer. His stiff countenance and rigid nature fits the character precisely.
The drama unfolds in a gorgeous setting with gorgeous period details, thanks to production designer Hubert Pouille and costumer designer Daniela Ciancio. Roman Osin’s photography also looks appropriately moody and film editor Nicolas Gaster keeps the momentum moving forward, though sometimes the pace gets a bit sludgy.
Simon Burke, who has extensive credits in television, is credited for the screenplay, which relies too much on twists that aren’t terribly surprising and don’t add any insight into the characters or the circumstances. Theoretically, the twists should bolster the primary narrative, but instead they often feel silly.
Tony Award-winning director David Leveaux presents a polished film that is stuck somewhere between a conventional thriller and a historical drama. It feels at once too earnest and too predictable to succeed, but the performances by James and Plummer make the trip more enjoyable than not.
The film opens at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, June 30.