‘The Exception’ is intriguing but not necessarily exceptional
Directed by: David Leveaux
Written by: Simon Burke (screenplay), Alad Judd (novel)
Starring: Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, and Eddie Marsan
“The Exception” - The definition of an exception is a person or a thing that does not follow a rule. In director David Leveaux’s first feature film, he wonders if Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) can be an exception and not follow a rule or - more specifically - his orders. Leveaux raises the stakes for the audience, because Capt. Brandt is not part of an ordinary military outfit, but a very infamous one. The year is 1940, and Brandt is a German soldier. Of course, SS soldiers who spoke the words “I was just following orders” have been forever scorned and shamed.
“The Exception” is not set in a concentration camp, but actually, the complete opposite, a lush and luxurious estate in German-occupied Holland. Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) lives in exile within the well-manicured, fully-staffed castle, and Brandt is ordered to protect the former German Emperor from a British spy who - according to intelligence reports - could assassinate him.
Leveaux and writer Simon Burke do not forge this wartime thriller on a foundation of action and gunplay. Instead, they construct an expositional, exploratory narrative through the eyes of three key characters who are figuratively placed in uncomfortable waters and asked to gently tread with a dangerous undercurrent looming nearby.
Wilhelm still burns with frustration due the German economic calamity after World War I and sorely feels less than whole. A king without a throne in his homeland. Meanwhile, Capt. Brandt tries to escape his wartime demons, as he repeatedly dreams the same image of dead women and children laying in an ordinary field. On this new assignment, death is ever-present too, because Brandt’s commander will execute him, if he fails to protect the king. The third character in this triad is a maid named Mieke (Lily James) who serves Wilhelm. Both Wilhelm and Brandt are smitten by Mieke’s beauty but also by her depth which carries some secrets.
Brandt and Mieke delve into a sexual relationship from the get-go, despite their obvious geopolitical differences (since Germany invaded her country and all), and their bedroom scenes are very forward. The tone almost pays tribute to films of the 1970s, when frank and open sex scenes can randomly appear out of nowhere, or perhaps the 1980s, as both Brandt and Mieke borrow a pick-up line from Daniel Day-Lewis’ Tomas in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988).
Courtney and James share onscreen physical chemistry, but I did not quite buy into their emotional connection. Now, I wholly believed their individual and collective angst in this particular castle but not necessarily the two as a potential long-term pair, either due to forced plot devices trying to unite them or their emotive fit as actors.
Plummer does fit as Kaiser Wilhelm II, and it is impossible to take your eyes off him, whether reminders of the king’s past surface during stormy, awkward political talk at dinner or through a quiet moment with Mieke, as they feed the ducks. Plummer plays Wilhelm as a complex soul, balancing proud, earned dignity with shame. Well into his 80s, Plummer continues to churn out terrific performances (“Remember” (2015), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “Beginners” (2010), among others), as his work in “The Exception” is no exception.
Courtney, known for living and breathing tough guy and villainous roles, delivers his most likable performance that I have seen to date (which is ironic, because he plays a Nazi captain), and James offers another memorable turn with nuanced touches. The film, however, does not quite possess that thriller-touch, as designed sequences like a race against time during an interrogation and an active search through the castle do not fetch enough tension. Rather than inducing stress from a ticking clock or worry about a Nazi guard’s detective methods, these scenes just feel cliché.
Although, I should note that Eddie Marsan – in a supporting role - is downright chilling as Heinrich Himmler, but as the movie plays out, the mechanics of the German military’s investigation are far less important than the lead characters’ growth. Then again, the relationships between the three leads sometimes feel more fanciful than realistic, but at least Leveaux and Burke are not following cinematic orders.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.