Director: David Leveaux
In theaters: 07.07
Despite the vast library of films that have been made about World War II, it’s not a cinematic backdrop that lends itself to introspection and finely tuned character studies—with the exception of Billy Wilder’s excellent Stalag 17, that is. Films about World War II tend to lean heavily on the brutality of war, the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the seemingly clear-cut lines between good (the Allies) and evil (the Nazis). David Leveaux’s The Exception eludes the predictable stigmas of a World War II film while telling a thought-provoking—and surprisingly sexy—story about loyalty, morality and the true meaning of patriotism.
Leveaux and screenwriter Simon Burke adapted The Exception from Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, which told a fictionalized account of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s days as an exile in the Netherlands. While Wilhelm’s exile is historical fact—Hitler held him responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I—Leveaux and Burke are more interested in the complexities of Wilhelm’s relationship with a country that suddenly becomes unrecognizable to him.
It’s easy for Christopher Plummer to steal the show as Kaiser Wilhelm II—Plummer excels at outwardly projecting authority while maintaining his inner vulnerability. Watching him strut around his largely deserted mansion in polished military regalia, we almost forget that no one actually gives a shit about him. Well, almost no one. He is joined by Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a Nazi officer who has been reassigned to guard Wilhelm, and a Dutch servant girl, Mieke de Jong (Lily James). Both find themselves reluctantly drawn into this world of feigned importance. The three of them end up becoming unlikely allies in a scheme that seems insignificant when cast against the sprawling theater of war that is ripping its way across Europe, but manages to pull us in anyway.
Admittedly, I was a bit uncertain about the casting of Jai Courtney in a role like this—he was last seen chucking boomerangs around in the overstuffed and underbaked Suicide Squad. Despite Hollywood’s failure to make Courtney into blockbuster material, his role as a morally conflicted Nazi officer in The Exception was impressive. Let’s hope this film is a pivotal moment for him to reinvent himself in the same way that actors like Colin Farrell and Keanu Reeves have done.
Lily James is definitely the dark horse of The Exception. Her demure house servant–turned–British spy gives her performance a wide range, and it’s fun to puzzle over whether her passionate relationship with Brandt was genuine or just a ploy to avoid detection. After watching her take on such a different character in Baby Driver, I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.
With excellent performances all around and a truly fascinating concept at its heart, The Exception is a refreshingly unique take on a cinematically unexplored aspect of World War II. Leveaux abandons the traditional tropes of good vs. evil in Nazi Germany by giving us a roster of complicated characters. They’re all imperfect, and their struggle to reconcile their sense of internal morality with the widespread horrors of the Third Reich sets The Exception apart. The moment when Wilhelm meets with Heinrich Himmler (played with soulless detachment by Eddie Marsan) is particularly jarring. When Wilhelm learns that the Germany of his memory is now led by monsters, we get a singular insight into what the rise of Hitler meant for those who were actually there. Up to that point, Wilhelm’s indirect involvement with German politics led him to believe that Hitler was nothing more than a screaming child, and the realization that his country could take such a radical direction in his absence only reminds him of his own impotence.
In many ways, The Exception is a risk that paid off nicely. It takes a chance with a first-time film director like Leveaux, it bucks World War II tradition by focusing entirely on the European perspective—no square-jawed Allied soldiers here—and it shows us that Jai Courtney is actually a pretty decent actor. It’s rare to see a film so elegantly embody its title. –Alex Springer