Saturday 2 May 2020

Movie Review: The Exception (2016)

A World War Two spy story and romance, The Exception offers good ingredients for a wartime thriller but the mix is lumpy.

In 1940, the Nazi war machine rolls into Holland. Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is assigned to protect Germany's former Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), who has been living in exile in Utrecht since the humiliating defeat of the Great War. Brandt, who has a chequered military career history, immediately starts a steamy affair with the Kaiser's Dutch housemaid Mieke de Jong (Lily James).

Dietrich (Mark Dexter) of the SS is looking for a British spy in the area and warns Brandt there may be a plot to assassinate the Kaiser. Meanwhile, the Kaiser's wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) still dreams of a return to the throne, and her hopes are elevated when Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) plans a visit.

Filled with sharp uniforms, the cockiness of a victorious army on the march, high-level intrigue, cross-generational tension, and slick styling, The Exception provides swirling chicanery on many fronts. It is never less than engaging, but also lacks narrative focus. The Simon Burke script, adapting the book by Alan Judd, creates plenty of overlapping characters, events and competing agendas. But director David Leveaux struggles to find a focused thrust, and the film divides its energy among multiple protagonists.

At various times The Exception wears the coat of different movies. Mieke is a spy on a mission, Brandt is charged with protecting the Kaiser, and their urgent love affair creates a potential collision course, even before she reveals another secret. But not satisfied with the story of dangerous lust, the film invests plenty of time on the parallel story of the Kaiser and his wife.

Wilhelm is still re-living the agony of defeat and exile, refusing to accept his role in the subsequent humiliation of his people. The nakedly ambitious Hermine believes redemption is close at hand and insists on plotting a return to the glory of the throne. Caught between them is Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), the Kaiser's loyal attendant, who understands that Wilhelm's open disdain of everything the Nazis stand for is unlikely to endear him to the likes of Himmler.

And so The Exception often forgets the spy story in favour of grandiose scenes of Christopher Plummer holding court with suspect proclamations about the past and the present, then shifts again to an appropriately nervous Janet McTeer betting everything on a return to Berlin. Meanwhile Dietrich and Brandt circle each other like two wolves about to engage in battle, while the scenes between Jai Courtney and Lily James alternate between hot sexuality and cold spy games.

Despite the absence of a singular purpose, director Leveaux adds a gloss of quality to all the mini plots, the Kaiser's grand mansion and surrounding estate providing a rich visual setting for the multiple dramas. The Exception may not quite know which plot to chase, but looks quite good testing them all out.

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