Director: David Leveaux
Cast: Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer, Lily James, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 6/2/17 (limited); 6/23/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 22, 2017
The fate of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who abdicated his throne at the end of the Great War and went into exile, is one of the lesser-known parts of the build-up to and the actual fighting of World War II. The Exception follows an SS officer who has been assigned command of the former emperor's personal bodyguards. Its plot, about Wilhelm's political maneuvering to return to Germany from the Netherlands and the work of a spy in the former emperor's home, depends on some historical license, which is fine. This is a work of historical speculation that gradually turns into a thriller of conflicting alliances. The license taken with these characters, on which Simon Burke's screenplay depends for success, is more difficult to reconcile in the broader picture of the war and its causes, though.
Basically, Burke, adapting Alan Judd's novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss, must turn the SS captain into someone who could be the exception to the rule of that terrible paramilitary group, and the screenplay must also downplay Wilhelm's views on nationalism and his record of anti-Semitism—both worldviews having contributed to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. These characters must be sympathetic for the material to work, and in the vacuum of the movie's narrative, they mostly are (although the SS officer gets off on the wrong foot toward our sympathies). Within the scope of reality, though, one wonders if the spy would serve as the more fitting protagonist here, capable of revealing the truth of history while the story still fiddles with some of the facts.
Instead, the protagonist is Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), who has been inactive from the SS on account of some "business in Poland." He was wounded—shrapnel in lodged in his abdomen—and has nightmares of dead bodies from a slaughter. Brandt wants to go back to battle but is instead assigned to oversee the protection of Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) at of former emperor's country estate. Brandt's commander warns that there's a British spy in the area.
While at the house, Brandt is immediately drawn to Mieke (Lily James), one of the house's maids. When she comes to offer Wilhelm's invitation to dinner the next day, Brandt tells her to undress and, essentially, sexually assaults her.
That's the immediate perception, although the movie eventually turns the tables on the relationship, having Mieke order Brandt to undress in their next encounter. The relationship itself, which turns from power dynamics to romance with an important stop in between, is at the heart of the story. Its beginning is queasy. Its middle, in which we learn that the maid is the spy, helps to explain why Mieke would go along with Brandt's advances.
It's the end result—of romance—that makes little sense in any context, especially when we learn that she is Jewish, as well as the fact that her family was killed by the SS during the German invasion of the Netherlands. For the relationship to work, Mieke must remain something of a cypher, who trusts a man she has no reason to trust—for reasons that must remain unspoken, because there's no rationale that would make sense.
This is a large gap to fill, and Burke has decided to ignore it. The decision is, perhaps, unwise in terms of helping us to understand one the movie's most important characters, but it is, at least, smart in terms of maintaining a sense of momentum in the narrative. The point here is not the romance. It's the game of seeing Brandt uncover the truth about Mieke and, eventually, debating whether or not to cover it up from his superiors, including a local SS inspector (played by Mark Dexter) and, later, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), the head of the SS, who is planning a top-secret visit to the old Kaiser.
The movie's depiction of Wilhelm is the most fascinating character here (since the movie ignores Mieke's internal struggle for the purposes of advancing the plot), although it's difficult to tell where reality ends and fiction begins. We get a man who wants to and is convinced that he should return to power in Germany for the benefit of the people and, of course, himself.
He's critical of Hitler in terms of military strategy, but he's sympathetic toward the German leader's nationalistic fervor. Wilhelm voices certain anti-Semitic sentiments, but it's Himmler's explanation of plans for genocide that renders the former emperor silent. This is, of course, a rather simple form of apologizing for the character's views. Yes, he believes there's a "Jewish problem," but the evil end of that view is, for him, too far. The end result of the character's portrayal is a genial old man who doesn't understand the consequences of his political views and, therefore, should be looked at with some sympathy.
The successes and shortcomings of The Exception really depend on how one watches it. If looking for characters who are accurate in terms of this historical period, the movie downplays too much for that view. If looking for characters who exist to be part of a fictional thriller, it works better, although it still contains plenty of baggage.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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