2017, R, 107 min. Directed by David Leveaux. Starring Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Eddie Marsan.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 7, 2017
Eternally young at 87, Christopher Plummer still has such a twinkle in his eye. That twinkle is one of the few bright spots in this limply executed romantic drama. Adapted by screenwriter Simon Burke from Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, The Exception is set in 1941 in the Netherlands, where Kaiser Wilhelm II (Plummer) is living in exile, still dreaming the Führer will restore his monarchy. Fat chance, that, but Hitler hasn’t forgotten him; indeed, the Party has sent Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to personally oversee the Kaiser’s bodyguard detail following intelligence that a spy has infiltrated his household. Brandt’s orders are twofold – find the spy, keep the Kaiser safe – but Brandt’s attention is further split when he falls for a lovely Dutch housemaid in the Kaiser’s employ named Mieke (James).
First-time feature director David Leveaux, a British theatre director with five Tony nominations to his credit, has assembled a mostly top-notch cast, including the always-reliable Janet McTeer as the Kaiser’s adoring second wife who encourages his fantasies about returning to power; Ben Daniels, quietly moving as the Kaiser’s devoted right-hand man; and Eddie Marsan, in a short but chilling turn as head S.S. monster Heinrich Himmler. Lily James – who’s finely adjusted her quintessential English rose quality to play a fairy-tale princess (Cinderella) and a Southern charmer (Baby Driver) – is believably grubbed down and steely in concealing she’s secretly a Jew. And Plummer, with his twinkle and bombast, is a pleasure, even as his performance recalls a better one in The Last Station, as Tolstoy, a different kind of titan also struggling with his legacy.
Lamentably, all of these performances must come in contact with Jai Courtney’s. He fills the film from first frame to last, and he’s crucial to all three of the interwoven plots – the love affair, the spy intrigue, the Kaiser’s attempts to reclaim his throne – which are frequently cross-cut in a way to goose suspense but instead come off as breathlessly theatrical. Courtney’s Capt. Brandt is meant to be soulful and haunted, which the actor translates as sullen. A flop as a romantic figure and moral center both, he is entirely free of charisma or the glint of an interior life, which leaves plenty of time to ponder his exterior, of which we get an eyeful. His is a body that is bulked and sculpted in a manner that befits Courtney’s usual m.o. co-starring in action movies (Suicide Squad, Divergent) but is distractingly anachronistic here attached to a commanding officer of the Third Reich with presumably little time to pump iron. The Exception’s line is not an easy one to walk, this marriage of soapy melodrama and real-world events, and with Courtney leading the parade, it’s destined for failure.