‘The Exception’ May Not Rule, But It’s Good

by Warren Cantrell on June 24, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

A decent enough exploration of wartime loyalties and the early stages of Nazi Germany’s most infamous atrocities, The Exception pulls off everything it sets out to do, yet still fails to dazzle. The story of a German Wehrmacht officer assigned to protect exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II during the early days of World War II, the film manages to mix in espionage, a love story, and true-to-life political intrigue. And while the plot is stitched together well, stiff dialogue and a lack of innovation puts the whole effort in something of a ditch.

Jai Courtney stars as Wehrmacht Captain Stefan Brandt, a career soldier whose injuries and service in Poland during the opening days of the war put him on a unique career track. Still ailing from his combat wounds, and on someone’s shit-list for reasons not yet known to the audience, Brandt travels to Holland at the behest of his superiors to lead the new security detail for Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). When he arrives, Brandt takes stock of his new situation and finds that the Kaiser has a very loyal staff, a devoted wife, and an elusive but beautiful servant named Mieke (Lily James).

Brandt is also hounded by the local Gestapo head, who expects the captain to act as an informant for the SS despite whatever orders he might have. As Brandt settles in, he juggles the demands of the outspoken Kaiser with his official duties as head of security, all of which is complicated by a burgeoning relationship with Mieke. Fraternization with the Kaiser’s staff is strictly forbidden, and with the Gestapo already in an agitated state due to rumors of a British secret agent in the area, Brandt must tip-toe through it all.

In the background, there is a sub-plot about the Kaiser’s hoped-for return to Germany, and the restoration of the monarchy under Wilhelm, yet Brandt and the Kaiser’s chief of staff, Colonel Ilsemann (Ben Daniels in top form) know better. Both of these soldiers understand that Hitler and his thugs don’t share power, they seize it. And when the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), pays the Kaiser a visit, tensions building between Brandt, the Gestapo, Mieke, and the Kaiser threaten to erupt.

Director David Leveaux seems to have done his best to coax some interesting morsels out of his leads, who do good work with some clunky dialogue. Indeed the actors all turn in top notch performances (Janet McTeer is magnificent as the brittle, wound-up Princess Hermine), even if the camera work is a little on-the-nose as it concerns the telegraphing of certain developments. What begins as a very troubling sexual relationship between Brandt and Mieke transforms into something surprising and unique, and the real-life politics behind the Kaiser’s possible return to the throne of Germany adds a great historical dimension to things.

Yet Plummer is the largest object in the film’s orbit, and with that gravity seems to suck up all the best parts of the effort. Most audiences won’t go into The Exception with much knowledge of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but after 105 minutes, those same people will leave the theater thinking they know the man and his history quite well. And while Courtney and James are undeniably the leads of the picture, the more interesting story belongs to Plummer and his Kaiser.

And that’s a good thing. The veteran actor, perhaps most notable for his Sound of Music role over fifty years ago, is matching wits against Nazis once again, and it is a glorious thing to behold. And it’s not just his own work: Plummer is like a +1 bonus applied to every scene-partner he’s got. Every actor’s game is bumped up a notch when sharing the screen with the Oscar winner, and the movie is obviously better for it. Yet while the stakes of the story are high (life and death shit with the Gestapo hanging out in the wings), there’s something elusive missing.

The story is decent enough, yet if rote World War II lover-spy-craft didn’t connect with audiences when Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard tried to sell it in last year’s Allied, chances are it won’t strike a chord with Courtney and James at the wheel. Which is a shame, because the story of the relationship between Mieke and Brandt is unconventional and interesting, and works well within the larger political drama of the Kaiser. Yet World War II cinema is a tough nut to crack. Unless you’ve got Indiana Jones or Captain America running around in the middle of it, audiences today don’t seem all that interested.

Which is to say that The Exception is a decent enough film, but these days it takes a Spielbergian reinvention of the genre to move audiences inside of a WWII framework. The cartoonish and exaggerated appearance of Himmler doesn’t help matters much, either, as the man is used less as a character and more as a necessary function of the script, which needs a catalyst to connect all its thematic and narrative threads. All of it comes together well in the end, yet the route to that destination is rocky.

Opening this Friday, The Exception is a smart, engaging romp through World War II and one officer’s struggle with romance, nationalism, and realpolitik. It plays a little loose with the historical record, but not so much that it takes a person out of things, and the performances by the leads, but especially Plummer, are fantastic. It doesn’t bring anything new to the genre’s conversation, however, and seems doomed to suffer the same fate as other ably constructed 1940s war dramas of recent years. Pity, too, because if for no other reason, this one is worth seeing just to watch ol’ Von Trapp take on the Nazis one last time.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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