David Leveaux’s The Exception cleverly melds historical fact and smart fiction. This WWII spy thriller turned romantic drama showcases some fine talent, though none more so that the irrepressible Christopher Plummer.
Experienced TV writer Simon Burke produced the screenplay, adapted from Alan Judd’s novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Leveaux himself is a renowned theatre director, and he introduces some “staginess” into the film.
The film opens in 1940. Since the end of WWI, the former Kaiser Wilhelm II (Plummer) has been living in exile in the Netherlands. But with Hitler’s invasion of that country, it seems he soon will be back in the arms of the Fatherland. Wilhelm, egged on by his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), firmly (though naively) believes he will be welcomed back to rule again in Berlin. But the German Army receives word that British spies are active in the area around the Kaiser’s retreat. So they send Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) to ensure no harm comes to him. There, Brandt finds a household stuck in a bygone age; exemplified by Wilhelm’s stiff aide Col. von Iselmann (Ben Daniels). But he also finds an instant attraction to Mieke de Jong (Lily James), one of Wilhelm’s housemaids.
The Exception plays out as a cat-and-mouse game between the Germans and the British, with the old Kaiser caught somewhere in the middle. All the elements of the film work fairly well together, though I thought the romantic elements were a bit clunky. Where it really succeeds however is in its depiction of Wilhelm. He’s a man clinging to the old ways, fervently hoping for their return. A a result, he doesn’t so much ignore the realpolitik of his current, as is completely unaware it even exists. The film’s pivotal scene – where a creepy Himmler (Eddie Marsan) comes for a visit – highlights the dreadful reality.
As mentioned, Leveaux has a background in the theatre, and the film feels rather “enclosed” within the Kaiser’s retreat for much of the first two acts. In the third act, things open out a bit. Those choices are no doubt deliberate, and play into the film’s broader themes. But for a while there, thing do go rather slowly, before picking up toward the end.
That said, you can’t fault Hubert Pouille’s production design, Roman Osin’s crisp cinematography, or Ilan Eshkeri’s understated score. By the way, despite the genteel surroundings, a couple of steamy scenes make their way into the film.
Attacking his crucial role in the film with relish, Christopher Plummer towers over the cast. His mere presence on screen is dignified yet powerful. As noted, he has a lot of work to do here; and his talents elevate the material. Australian Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad) brings a tempered masculinity to his role as Brandt and acquits himself well. Lily James, in her second period film in a row after The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (though this was actually made first) gives Mieke a fierce determination that’s perfect for the role. Special mention too must go to Janet McTeer (Allegiant) and Ben Daniels (Rogue One) as the deluded princess and stuffy aide respectively.
Although it doesn’t entirely come together, The Exception is an engaging – at times engrossing – film. The mix of fact and fiction is neatly done, and the fine performances lift this above the everyday.
Director: David Leveaux
Cast: Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer
Release Date: 17 May 2018
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- British Film Festival 2017 – movie feature
- Darkest Hour – movie review
- All the Money in the World – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television