A German soldier tries to determine if the Dutch resistance has planted a spy to infiltrate the home of Kaiser Wilhelm in Holland during the onset of World War II, but falls for a young Jewish Dutch woman during his investigation.
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Set during World War II, The Exception
is about a German Captain with a checkered past named Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney from the Divergent
movies) who is sent to protect exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (screen legend Christopher Plummer from Beginners
and Danny Collins
) in the Netherlands from British spies that are rumored to be in the area. Brandt searches for clues while keeping an eye on the Kaiser, but his plan get complicated when he meets a housekeeper named Mieke de Jong (Lily James from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
) and they begin a passionate affair. Mieke, however, has secrets of her own, and when Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler (Concussion
's Eddie Marsan) shows up for an inspection/visit, neither she nor Brandt know who they can or cannot trust.
There are some curious people behind the camera for The Exception
. The screenplay was adapted by British television writer Simon Burke ("Liverpool 1," "Chancer") from the novel "The Kaiser's Last Kiss" by Alan Judd. It's not too strange to have a T.V. writer working on a feature film, but the director, David Leveaux, is a live theater director whose only movie credits are televised productions of stage plays. In some ways, his theater-style direction works, mainly in the character development department - the relationship between Brandt and Mieke is absolutely incendiary, and the tension between the Kaiser and Himmler is palatable as well. The way the plot slowly and deliberately lays itself out, with deception after betrayal after lie after secret, is very theatrical as well.
Where Leveaux could use a little help is with the more action-oriented sections of the film. There's plenty of tension, but not so much release, especially for a movie about spies and assassins that is set in a hostile area during World War II. Sure, guns shoot and people run, but it's clear that Leveaux is not an action filmmaker. Luckily, there aren't too many sequences where he tries - The Exception
is heavier on character, backstory, and even romance, than it is on blood and explosions.
There's enough intrigue to keep The Exception
going without the typical trappings of a war movie. Seemingly no one can be trusted, and that keeps the audience on its toes just as much as it does the characters. There are double- and triple-crosses in play everywhere, and even Brandt and Mieke's relationship is suspect; are they falling for each other, or merely playing each other for survival's sake?
At the end of the day, just because The Exception
is a war movie, don't expect it to act like one. It's suspenseful and exciting, but not in the same way as a Saving Private Ryan
, a Fury
, or even a The Monuments Men
. To paraphrase the movie itself, it is The Exception
, not the rule.
There is some explosive chemistry between Lily James and Jai Courtney in The Exception
. There's plenty of sexual tension (and even a bit of release) for their characters, but it all comes with suspicion and unease, like the two want to trust each other, but ultimately don't know if they can. Despite their skepticism, they also have common enemies in the house, so they still must work together in a fragile truce to benefit both of them. Courtney and James work very well together in this capacity, and watching them play things out is fascinating. For example, during one dinner scene, the Kaiser rambles on and on about nothing of substance, so the camera moves to Brandt and Mieke, who give each other knowing looks whenever the old man hits on certain subjects, but their eyes also scream of apprehension, knowing that their affair would spell doom for both of them for different reasons if they were discovered. It's a stellar bit of acting by both of Courtney and James (and also by Janet McTeer from The Woman in Black
, who plays the Kaiser's wife, Princess Hermine). When Jai Courtney and Lily James are on screen together, The Exception
doesn't need bombs or bullets; the pair supplies plenty of firepower on their own.