The Exception

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 23, 2017

Christopher Plummer stars in The Exception
Christopher Plummer stars in The Exception  

"The Exception," David Leveaux's big-screen adaptation of Alan Judd's noble "The Kaiser's Last Kiss," is a fluffy, soapy World War II drama set far away from the from lines and the German death camps. The film might play out in Holland, at the estate of Germany's exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), but it's still wartime -- and the stakes are still life and death.

The story is silly, but the film is so handsome to look at you might not mind -- Jai Courtney in particular, though Lily James is no slouch in the beauty department, the production design by Hubert Pouille is palpably gorgeous, and cinematographer Roman Osin does wonderful things with light.

Courtney plays Captain Brandt, a veteran of the war whose wounds, both physical and psychological, have taken a serious toll. Following a breach of discipline, Brandt is out of favor with his commanding officers; even so, he is the improbable choice for a special assignment -- to travel to the Kaiser's home in the newly-occupied Netherlands and take up the duty of guarding his life. The Kaiser might be out of power, but -- as is explained to the dubious Brandt -- he's still a symbol of German nationalism.

Though Brandt is skeptical, he finds upon his arrival that there is indeed a British agent in the area. As a contingent of SS officers close in on the spy, Brandt commences to navigate the delicate politics of the Kaiser's court. Wilhelm himself is erratic of mood -- sometimes jovial as a child, sometimes stormily defensive -- while his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) is in a constant state of high agitation, feeling that the German government would not have dispatched an Army captain and cadre of soldiers to guard them unless there was some chance that they might be reinstated to the throne.

A third major member of the household is Col. von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), the Kaiser's loyal confidante, whose military experience and keen observations make him either an invaluable ally, or a very dangerous foe.

Captain Brandt will need allies, given his precarious situation; he's told in no uncertain terms that he'll be shot if the Kaiser is harmed. It's an open question as to whether Brandt has been sent there to fail. In the midst of his problems, Brandt finds himself falling in love with a precocious servant named Mieke (James) -- a young woman whose seeming innocence delights the Kaiser, but who, upon realizing Brandt is attracted to her, makes it plain that she's no prude, and she's interested in turn.

This is the romance that flowers at the heart of this historical fantasy, which is stuffed with intrigue, danger, and none-too-credible twists. Still, the performances drag the film into the realm of solid entertainment; Plummer's character is written in a way that should make him utterly unbelievable, and yet the great British actor pulls off such a well-calibrated, charming performance that inconsistencies don't rankle. McTeer finds an unexpected warmth and tenderness within her character's calculating soul, and Courtney and James burn up the screen with their volatile chemistry. Eddie Marsan shows up for a chilling turn as Hitler's right-hand man, the utterly revolting Heinrich Himmler, and plays him with cold, remorseless steel.

"The Exception" is named for the kind of officer Mieke tells Brandt he is: Duty-bound, but not sadistic; patriotic, but not vicious. Underneath the contrivances of the plot and the broadness of the film's themes are stinging nettles of observation having to do with human nature and moral corruptibility -- evil, in other words, and the things evil countenances in the name of nobility, honor, and other lofty, but easily co-opted, ideals. You could certainly do worse than to enjoy this film for its brash thrills and sumptuous visuals, while remaining open to its timely message.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.