Pictorially handsome and awash in wartime intrigue, “The Exception” milks romance, sex and pathos from one of the more uncharted territories of World War II fiction: the Netherlands.
That’s where the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), the last monarch of Germany, spent his final years, as the Nazi machine metastasized throughout Europe. Based on Alan Judd’s respected 2003 novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, “The Exception” dramatizes the Kaiser’s decline against a charged, clandestine romance between his newly commissioned guard, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), and the Kaiser’s most mysterious chambermaid, Mieke (Lily James).
Light on thrills, the film coasts elegantly without them, thanks to assured, uninhibited direction from longtime British stage director David Leveaux. Stefan and Mieke meet each other sexually before they know each other’s names, in a pair of smoldering sequences that bring welcome parity to onscreen nudity, effectively demolishing the master-servant hierarchy. Keeping what becomes a string of compounding secrets grows ever more tenuous, especially considering the rules of the Kaiser’s estate: “Copulation with the servants is strictly forbidden.”
Screenwriter Simon Burke, by way of Judd’s novel, ratchets up the drama by integrating a surprise visit from Heinrich Himmler (the great character actor Eddie Marsan), the head of the S.S., with an offer the naïve Kaiser cannot refuse, culminating in a swirl of colliding motivations.
Marsan plays Himmler as a chilling personification of pure evil, casually discussing the extermination of children over a plate of dinner. “The Exception” is more ambivalent toward the Kaiser, a character who provides a rich, complicated canvas for the superb Plummer. Famous for tactless pronouncements, he sounds Fascist-lite when bemoaning the “freemasons, Bolsheviks and Jews” taking over Germany, but he saves some of his most potent potshots for the Third Reich, Hitler and Gohring. Many of his opinions, spoken with faded stentorian authority, seem self-serving, designed to polish his shattered reputation and cling to whatever wisps of power he still commands. Mostly, he lives like an active retiree, chopping wood and feeding ducks on his still-capacious grounds.
That he lands somewhere in the middle on the continuum of good and evil is to the movie’s evenhanded credit. Burke’s script is prone to occasional on-the-nose archness (“You are the Kaiser!” his wife, played by Janet McTeer, feels compelled to remind him, and us, early on), but it’s mostly for clarity, helping to elucidate a time and place with which most audiences won’t be familiar. With acting, directing and atmosphere this unimpeachable, all minor quibbles are forgiven.
“The Exception” opens Friday, June 23 at Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, and the Tower Theater in Miami.