After World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II fled Germany to live in exile in the Netherlands. The Nazis overran that country, in May 1940. Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler then paid the kaiser a little visit. Two of those statements are true. If you can’t guess which one isn’t, then “The Exception” is right up your Autobahn.
Based on Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” “The Exception” is the kind of movie where German and Dutch characters speak a lightly accented English (“Vilhelm, ve may be goink bahk to Cher-many!”) perhaps found at a Berlitz honors ceremony. There’s also a conscience-stricken German captain, an appealing maid who reads Nietzsche, and possibly a British agent lurking in the vicinity. It’s all very throwback. Remove the sex scenes — don’t worry, none involve the kaiser — and Hollywood could have made “The Exception” in the 1950s.
In other words, it’s hopeless tosh — but expertly done hopeless tosh. The acclaimed English stage director David Leveaux clearly enjoys being behind the camera in his filmmaking debut. As the captain, Jai Courtney makes you wonder how much more it would have cost to get Tom Hardy. Courtney’s beefiness and brooding get the job done, but Hardy is the current master of both. Lily James’s maid is fine, even if she likely found herself thinking, “Things weren’t like this at Downton Abbey.”
Janet McTeer, as the kaiser’s wife, and Ben Daniels, as his chief aide, are more than fine. “The Exception” is part thriller, part wartime romance, part comedy of curdled monarchical manners. “Better start counting the silver,” the kaiser mutters when informed that Himmler’s coming. But McTeer and Daniels, in their fretful concern for a foolish old man they both love — she out of affection and self-interest, he out of professional duty and personal loyalty — take the movie to a much deeper and more interesting emotional place.
Best of all are Eddie Marsan, as Himmler, and Christopher Plummer, as Wilhelm. They’re a splendid study in contrasting styles. Marsan has few peers among character actors, and playing one of the greatest monsters of the last century he ruthlessly underplays. If his Himmler were any more of a cold fish he’d be Arctic char. As for Plummer, the pleasure he takes in his performing is palpable. True, he looks not at all like Wilhelm; and his actorly charm makes the kaiser, whose doltishness led to the deaths of millions, even more appealing than James’s maid. Well, that’s in the nature of hopeless tosh; and Plummer contributes no small part of the expertise. The way he lingers over the word “discreet” when lightly reprimanding a pair of young lovers is, yes, truly exceptional.
Directed by David Leveaux. Written by Simon Burke; based on Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.” Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily James, Jai Courtney, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Eddie Marsan. At West Newton, Dedham. 107 minutes. R (nudity, sexual situations, offensively tasteful images of a Nazi war crime).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.