Someone’s finally figured out what to do with the oft-maligned Jai Courtney: Make him a romantic lead in a Nazi drama. A very specific niche to fill, to be sure, but his performance in The Exception is a blessed contrast to his usual waste in schlocky action fare.
Based on 2003 novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, The Exception, set in a fictionalized World War II timeline (for all you European scholars out there), follows German soldier Stefan Brandt (constantly-misclassified actor Courtney) on assignment to the personal detail of exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). He is to, with the pretext of bodyguarding, spy on the former monarch, residing in the Netherlands, and determine the Kaiser’s allegiances to the Third Reich. Meanwhile, an unidentified British spy snoops around the local Dutch village, still evading the Germans and complicating the already deliciously pulpy plot.
We have a soldier with a mysterious past, a Kaiser with a lifetime of bitterness and a maid of indeterminate allegiance—all in a sexy Dutch castle surrounded by spycraft, ulterior motives and Nazi paranoia. This maid, Mieke (Lily James), sparks a romance with Brandt begun with a series of lustful glances. The relative silence between the two early in their affair is frustrating and dorky—the burning wordlessness that only occurs in bad romance novels—but their chemistry is undeniably passionate.
David Leveaux, a British theatre director making his film debut, shows a steady hand with his actors and a commanding sense for camera placement, instilling paranoia and secrecy in scenes as cinematographer Roman Osin angles his peering eye through windows and around corners. Different lighting tinges each scene with ambient tones (especially when using candlelight) and deft, ogling changes in the audience’s perspective reflect the young romance’s shifts in power dynamics. The camera becomes excited along with Leveaux’s characters, spinning around Wilhelm to kinetically capture his freedom as he takes simple pleasure in something simple like feeding his ducks, or, less innocently, focusing on its stars’ bodies.
This is when I get to take a second to applaud the film for its egalitarian policy towards nudity. Yes, Jai Courtney hangs dong in The Exception. He bares it all, allowing his character a much-needed vulnerability (care of, aside from his nudity, a large abdominal scar from wartime shrapnel) behind his Nazi greys. The film sometimes fades in and out to Brandt’s memories, his traumatic dreams of past wartime horrors, signifying guilt, fear and self-loathing in a lead who’s never too soft but never too stony. Mieke is a bit slight as a character, but James finely finds depth in her character through a quiet, rushed desperation. Her hesitation as she admits to Brandt that she is Jewish is both completely endearing and troubling; in turn, we care about her and the romance she obviously cares so much about.
The film’s other romance, between the Kaiser and his homeland, is just as involved and complex. The Kaiser, whom Plummer fills with humor and gravitas, hates being reminded of the Germany that blamed him, ousted him and forgot about him. He is both endearing and scary, Plummer humanizing a character who has such potential for cruelty and hates Serbs, Bolsheviks and dissent.
The Kaiser’s wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz (Janet McTeer), doesn’t get much to do until the surprise visit of Heinrich Himmler (a delightfully deadpan and evil Eddie Marsan), head of the SS, which thinks is to confirm the monarchy will be restored. That McTeer’s wild eyes and tittering body language finds a hopeful balance between pathetic and sweet is quite amazing when both sides, Nazis and monarchists, have a history of ruthless power. A well-edited film, The Exception always finds time to linger on brief breaths before the action begins and the moments of reflection after the action ends to add depth to an otherwise straightforward story. Editor Nicolas Gaster (who also served as the film’s second unit director) is able to surmise the perfect length for each shot.
Yet, the film never quite achieves the level of fevered hurry for which it aims—sometimes due to its often trite, on-the-nose dialogue and sometimes to the stilted delivery of said dialogue. The explanations, admittances and declarations uttered by the characters here need conversational groundwork before spewing forth as if from a burst pipe, and without that foundation, which The Exception struggles to provide, they’re jarring enough to shake you out of the film. Still, Leveaux’s is a romantic and pleasantly small film about love in an era when love always contested with duty to something greater.
Director: David Leveaux
Writer: Simon Burke
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Jai Courtney, Lily James, Eddie Marsan, Janet McTeer
Release Date: June 2, 2017