This is a classic example of a host of talented people missing the mark because the resulting film places its emphasis on the least interesting characters. The Exception is the curious World War II dramatic thriller set in The Netherlands, where the exiled German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) is living out what will likely be his final years with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) and a group of Nazi bodyguards to protect him from Allied forces. HIs new bodyguard is a military man Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), who has survived a nasty time at the front and is brought in because there are whisperings of a British spy in the area who might harm the Kaiser. Brandt almost immediately falls for Mieke (Lily James), a local woman working at the residence as a servant.
The initial drama in the film centers on their relationship, which is complicated when she admits that she’s Jewish and he claims not to care, even dangling marriage as a possibility. But when word reaches them that one of Hitler’s most trusted men, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), the head of the SS, will be visiting Wilhelm, things take a fairly obvious turn and get more complicated for everyone. The truth is that Plummer’s performance is so wonderfully loopy that anytime he’s not on screen, the movie feels empty and predictable. Plummer plays the Kaiser as though he might be losing his grip on reality, as he and his wife are desperate to return to Germany and reclaim the crown, or that he’s incapable of keeping his emotions in check and threatens to have their monthly allowance from Germany cut off or reduced. But there are other times when the actor makes us believe that Wilhelm is behaving erratic intentionally to throw people off and underestimate him.
Based on the novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd (adapted by Simon Burke), The Exception is the feature debut from well-regarded stage director David Leveaux, who just recently mounted a 50th anniversary staging of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Old Vic. And while Leveaux is talented enough to know when to let his actors piece together a performance that is wholly unexpected, he doesn’t quite know how to keep our interest in this rather conventional star-crossed lovers scenario, even with the added intrigue that one of the couple might be using the other.
The final act of The Exception gets plain-old loopy as the search for the spy continues, the young couple are caught by the princess, and the Kaiser needs to be rushed to the hospital. It feels almost like slapstick, there are so many balls in the air. Still, the film does find time to allow Wilhelm and Mieke to become friends, to the point where he attempts to help her escape the country, and for the Brits intent with the Kaiser to become clearer. James is certainly known for lighter fare recently (“Downton Abbey,” Cinderella), but her recent turns in the upcoming Baby Driver and in the “War & Peace” miniseries illustrate a more serious-minded actor within her. This film is a step in the right direction, even if the end product doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. It can also be found at Amazon and other major streaming platforms.