“The Exception” is a period story about a king without a throne, star-crossed lovers and espionage — but mostly it’s about Nazis.
From an obscure episode of World War II, the film crafts one of the most bewildering love triangles in memory, giving us a peculiar emotional menage a trois. The members are Germany’s exiled monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II; a Wehrmacht army captain assigned to guard him against Allied operatives as Hitler tries to trade his return to the throne for supporting the Reich; and an English undercover agent embedded as a maid on the royal household staff who wants to foil the proceedings with her pistol. Despite following hidden agendas at cross purposes, the captain and the agent become romantically entwined, with the doting king’s blessing.
The film is set in 1940, a year before Wilhelm’s death. Christopher Plummer has a field day as Wilhelm, giving the sort of flamboyant, focused performance that reminds us why and how he became legendary. His Wilhelm is no towering tragic figure but one who allowed royal privilege to go to his head.
He’s a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, which conversation in his presence tactfully ignores. He is also an elegant, wrecked antique. Wilhelm wears his collected old military uniforms like a Halloween merrymaker. He moves continually from jaunty humor, to feeding breadcrumbs to the birds like a weary retiree, to amusingly self-important egotism. Plummer shows us his resentment of his deeply diminished rank, how he is baffled, humbled and willing to bargain with the devilish Hitler to return to his family’s lost throne.
Still, there are magnetic moments of warmth about him. Some of this is directed at his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer doing a comic version of Cinderella’s pushiest stepsister). But most goes to the new pair of lovebirds on his estate. Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), who is recuperating from wounds suffered in the takeover of Poland, and lovely maid Mieke de Jong (Lily James), who delights Wilhelm with her shy, curtsying charm. The young actors are repeatedly unclothed eye candy whose bedroom trysts and complex, borderline sadomasochistic relationship have them considering a life together. He’s not a stereotypical Nazi monster. It was the physical and emotional scars he got from his first experience of combat that got him pulled from front-line duty to babysit His Majesty.
The film shows us that the face of danger can sometimes feel attractive and all sorts of weird relationships can spring up in the most desperate of circumstances. When Brandt learns of de Jong’s Jewish background and why there is a little trail of gun oil on her dresser, their affair becomes more complicated. Even more so when the compound receives a surprise visit from Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan doing a quirky, powerful job as a chilling monster). The war criminal’s detached dinner table chat about his research into the most time-efficient way to kill Jewish children is terrifyingly convincing.
It’s the script by longtime TV writer Simon Burke that most hinders the film’s promise. The stakes are high, with world war on the horizon, but events in this story don’t build to anything really big. It’s not structured with a solid blueprint for drama, nor deep enough to dig into the characters’ intimate feelings. Adapted from a novel by Alan Judd, it seems to have smoothed the characters to a level where they shock or offend as few viewers as possible. It gives us no sense of what set the anti-royalist fervor of the German people and government against Wilhelm to such a level that he had to flee for his life.
This is historical fiction with a capital F and a generous coat of whitewash. The problems of a mismatched couple don’t amount to a hill of beans in those circumstances. “The Exception” is exceptional in several ways, not all of them good.
Rated: R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence. Starring: Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer. Director: David Leveaux. Running time: 107 minutes. Theater: Flicks.