The Germans may have been the bad guys in World War II, but those we meet in “The Exception” don’t fit the mold at all — which explains the title change in this historically inspired, charitably revisionist adaptation of military veteran Alan Judd’s “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” which marks a tony big-screen debut for British stage director David Leveaux. Elegant, well-acted and a good deal sexier than the material might suggest, “The Exception” pokes fun at Hitler and his lockstep followers, while presenting its German protagonists as charming pacifists who’d rather be feeding the ducks and chasing skirts than waging genocide and world domination.
Mounted in the style of such art-house crowd-pleasers as “The King’s Speech” and “The Last Station” (with which it shares stage-and-screen royalty Christopher Plummer, bookending a career that practically began in uniform as the dashing Capt. Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”), “The Exception” takes place far from the front lines, focusing on the romance that upsets a wounded officer’s unusual assignment to protect Kaiser Wilhelm II, who has since been exiled to Holland following Germany’s defeat in the First World War — and whom the Third Reich now fears could be a target for symbolic assassination.
Unlike the bloodthirsty Nazis running the show in Berlin, both the Kaiser and Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, playing an Iron Cross-decorated officer whose battle scars do little to diminish his Aryan good looks) have seen enough of war. For Brandt, no amount of one-night stands can chase away the nightmares of a young girl he couldn’t save, and though he’s too disillusioned to return to the front, there’s virtually no risk in his latest mission, which amounts to a glorified babysitting gig. Meanwhile, elbowed into near-irrelevance, the Kaiser clearly thinks of Hitler as a clown, and doesn’t hesitate to say as much, even if his own wife (a tight-lipped Janet McTeer) is quick to do damage control: “His earlier remark about the Fuhrer was simply a correction of fact, you understand, and in no way a criticism,” she adds.
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Such moments just go to show how paranoid Hitler’s autocratic grip on Germany has made the entire country, including its former ruler, who doesn’t much care for the direction things have taken since his forced abdication in 1918. Whatever his misgivings, the Kaiser is basically obliged to cozy up to the little tyrant, as we can see from all the fuss and bother his team makes in anticipation of a visit from Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan, who turns the SS ultra-villain’s ideals into a form of buffoonish obedience).
Bringing a fair amount of humor to the table, TV writer Simon Burke (“Persuasion”) treats Judd’s novel as a sort of 20th-century twist on “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which everyone privately considers the Fuhrer to be a screechy, silly-mustached cretin, but no one dares say it to his face. And yet these characters prove defiant in their own ways, as illustrated by whispers of a British spy who’s infiltrated the Kaiser’s household.
This isn’t the sort of film to exploit such intrigue for long, cutting directly to the mole: a local Jewish girl named Mieke (“Downtown Abbey’s” Lily James), recently hired as a housekeeper. Mata Hari in a maid’s uniform, Mieke uses her sexuality as a weapon, openly flirting with the Kaiser, while indulging in more intimate hanky panky with Brandt back in his quarters, then sneaking behind both of their backs to deliver vital intel to the resistance-minded priest in town.
Though well handled, these espionage elements pale in comparison to the curious dance each of these characters must do with one another, judging just how much of their true selves to betray with each interaction. The first time Mieke enters Brandt’s chamber, he orders her to strip, suggesting a certain power dynamic, but when they next find themselves in his room, it is she who takes the upper hand, and Brandt who bares himself to her. In his own way, the Kaiser also lets down his defenses, effectively putting first his opinions and later his life in the hands of those whose agendas he might do well to question, all for one last thrill at playing the lusty rapscallion.
Although the film feels cinematic enough that few will suspect Leveaux’s background in theater, the director coaxes a masterful performance from Plummer, who brings soul to the Kaiser, when the he needed only to put a twinkle in the eye of his one-dimensional character. While the story centers on the “good German” — Brandt, that rare Nazi captain who defies orders and listens to his conscience (clearly located somewhere between his loins and his heart) — it’s Plummer who steals the show, suggesting that the entire country might have gone another direction had he been left in charge.