WWII drama 'The Exception' offers old-fashioned intrigue, romance

If you thought Lily James didn’t have enough to do in Baby Driver, check her out in The Exception, in which there’s not much she doesn’t do.

She plays newly hired domestic Mieke de Jong (still wearing an apron) at the World War II Holland estate of exiled German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer), a place swirling with international intrigue.

The banished Wilhelm is the one potential rival to Adolf Hitler’s power that the Fuhrer hasn’t killed, making him a likely target for assassination. To that end, a German officer named Brandt (Jai Courtney) with a mysterious past, recovering from serious wounds, is sent to guard him.

Wilhelm also looms as a figure of interest to the Allies — if they can manage to unseat Hitler, Wilhelm might be useful as a means of stabilizing a defeated Germany. This would not be disagreeable to the kaiser, who wishes for a restoration of the aristocracy almost as much as his delusional wife (Janet McTeer) does.

All this makes his remote estate a place ripe with espionage. The gestapo believes the Allies have installed a spy close to Wilhelm, and Brandt is assigned the task of rooting him out. Under the circumstances, fraternization with the kaiser’s staff is out of the question, but Brandt is smitten with Mieke, and they commence a torrid affair, adding to the estate’s dangerous tangle of secrets.

As history goes, The Exception is about as valuable as Where Eagles Dare. It makes Wilhelm seem more doddering and harmless than he was, as though his anti-Semitism is something that turned up (or spread) in old age, like gray hair.

On the other hand, old-pro Plummer finds some interesting angles in his Wilhelm — part of him wants to return to power, part of him sees the conflagration that has engulfed Europe and understands there is no going back. Driving home the latter point: a visit from Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsden), offering a creepy reminder of the hateful forces now in control of the continent.

Courtney and James have good chemistry, and the sexual candor of their scenes together comes as a bit of a surprise, given the costume-drama, art-house tone of the production, though perhaps this is just the residue of James’ Downton Abbey days.


The Exception

Directed by David Leveaux. With Christopher Plummer, Lily James, Jai Courtney, Janet McTeer, and Eddie Marsden. Distributed by A24 Films.

Parent's guide: R (sexual situations, war).

Running time: 107 minutes.

Playing at:  AMC Cherry Hill, Bryn Mawr Film Institute.