British Film Festival 2017 The Exception: Painting history in shades of grey

The film turns history into a tale of high-stakes romance.
The film turns history into a tale of high-stakes romance. | © The Exception

52 years ago, the Austrian hills were alive for Christopher Plummer. Now, a Dutch village is as well. Gone is the sound of music on the cusp of war, replaced by the possibility of doing what’s right after the combat has begun.

In The Exception, Plummer steps into the shoes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who has been living in exile in the Netherlands for two decades when the film takes place. It’s 1940, World War II is well underway and the Nazis have freshly invaded the Netherlands on their planned path through Europe, but they’re concerned about local spies targeting the house of the German emperor. Playing Wilhelm as cantankerous but kindly, unhappy about the present while yearning for the past, and outspoken — behind closed doors — in his criticism of Hitler, it seems there’d be little of significance for enemies to eavesdrop upon. Indeed, when Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is dispatched to become the head of the deposed ruler’s protective detail, he’s there to serve and guard as much as to ensure the old man keeps in line.

Christopher Plummer as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Christopher Plummer as Kaiser Wilhelm II. | © The Exception It’s the young German officer, haunted by his own deeds in the war and too physically scarred to return to battle, that is positioned as the exception of the feature’s title: a kindly Nazi officer who can ultimately see past party loyalty, regardless of the risks to his own life. And, it’s one of Wilhelm’s servants, Dutch housekeeper Mieke (Lily James), who proves his motivation. Defying house rules, they embark upon a lusty affair that masks her true aims, though that — and her heritage — aren’t kept secret from Brandt for too long. Unsurprisingly, the turmoil increases when SS Commander Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) comes to visit, a trip Wilhelm's wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) has orchestrated in her attempts to get the Kaiser back to Berlin.

A tale of high-stakes romance

Helmed by British theatre director turned first-time filmmaker David Leveaux, and adapted from Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss by seasoned TV screenwriter Simon Burke (Strike Back, Fortitude), The Exception turns history into a tale of high-stakes romance, as staged in handsome period style with lashings of both tension and humour. Accordingly, it’s a film of seemingly ill-fitting parts, as its threads of wartime duplicity and striving for decency don’t always piece together perfectly with its love story. Still, when the feature’s various aspects do shine — the individual performances, and the thoughtful way that each of the three main characters are forced to confront their place in the conflict, for example — it remains involving.

The film takes place in 1940. The film takes place in 1940. | © The Exception That’s where Plummer is crucial, even if he’s not always the centre of The Exception’s attention. Liberties may have been taken with reality in the name of entertainment, drama and an engaging story, but the veteran star turns his version of the Kaiser into a compelling and textured presence — whether he’s letting his true opinions be known at dinner, much to Hermine’s dismay; feeding the ducks and thinking about his future; or showing kindness in a situation where his position should be clear-cut. In a film painting allegiance to the wrong side in shades of grey, albeit with warm, elegant staging, there’s a noble spirit, evident vulnerability and ample regret apparent in his portrayal of the ruler. James also shows zest, while Courtney fares worse than his co-stars but better than he has in much of the rest of his career output; however, there’s no surpassing Plummer once again eschewing the Nazis, this time without melodic tunes.