He was the last German Emperor. And it’s true, as a war time leader during the First World War he was ineffective, lost all support of the army, and was forced to abdicate. He spent the remaining years of his life in exile, in neighboring Holland, and lived in a manor house called Huis Doorn where he was largely forgotten. Having thought that Kaiser Wilhelm ll had passed away several years earlier, many never realized he remained alive for as long as he did. He died at Huis Doorn as late as 1941. He was buried in a small mausoleum in the gardens. Today, Huis Doorn is a Dutch national museum, and that mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for German monarchists.
In his 2003 novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, author Alan Judd took that setting and wrote a fictional account revolving around the Kaiser’s remaining days in Holland. As with many stories written as ‘faction,’ times and dates are blurred, and events never really occurred quite in the way they do in the story. But while there’s a mixed bag of what is truth and what was invented, the film version adapted from Judd’s book remains a compelling drama that fully engages. And much of what happens and said in the film really did happen, though not quite as you see them, nor were they spoken by characters created for the book.
The new title, The Exception, refers to German soldier Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), sent on orders from Berlin to guard the exiled Kaiser. As events at the mansion unfold, the captain’s perspective of what is right and wrong, the Nazi party, and his role as a German in the war, will change. “They’re the rule,” Mieke, the housemaid (Lily James) will tell him. “You are the exception.”
There’s word that a British spy is in the area, and it’s Captain Brandt’s job to make sure that nothing happens to the Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) or his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer). When viewing the Kaiser from a distance on the mansion grounds, the elderly man calls him out and tells the captain it’s unnecessary to be shadowing him everywhere. “If anything happened to you, I’d be shot,” the young man tells him.
Complications develop the moment the captain begins a secret affair with Mieke. It’s through her eyes he initially sees things in a somewhat different light. He doesn’t quite believe her when she expresses what she knows to be true of the SS, but it gives the young man pause for thought. Maybe some of the things he’d always believed about the work his country was doing weren’t quite as he was taught. Maybe his thoughts on Hitler aren’t quite as he believed, either. It’s when the mansion is visited by one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany that change truly comes.
Heinrich Himmler (an effectively menacing Eddie Marsden) arrives with a personal message from the Fuehrer. Greetings are polite, if awkward, but it’s the man’s dinner table conversation where things become truly uncomfortable. With casual disregard for the horror of what he’s saying, he talks of the elimination of those not useful to the party, particularly children, and how to do it. That’s the moment when the captain has to make the choice between his allegiance to the party and his conscience. By their silence, even the Kaiser and his wife are clearly appalled. Referring to Hitler and the madness of his toady, dedicated followers such as Himmler, the Kaiser will later tell Mieke, “They are not as we are.”
Essentially a romantic war drama, told at a slow but taut pace, as events develop, the identity of the British spy is revealed, and the captain’s loyalty is altered, the film forms into an exciting, though unexpected thriller in the final act as the Kaiser himself becomes instrumental regarding an escape plan. With Holland now occupied and the Nazis closing in, even the Kaiser is aware that things promised him will never occur. True to the title of the book, it’s the Kaiser’s last kiss; he takes it upon himself to do something good.
First time film director David Leveaux is an English theatre director, having worked extensively on both the London and New York stage. In The Exception, he’s succeeded on coaxing the best theatrical performances he can get from his ensemble, most of whom are also from the stage. It’s art-house, but because of its cast, there’s mainstream potential.
In his silences, Eddie Marsden’s Himmler is so threatening, the role actually takes on an almost comical feel that would make you laugh if it wasn’t for the horrific detail he reveals when explaining how to kill children. Lily James as the housemaid with her own secrets, perhaps best remembered on film as Cinderella in the 2015 Disney live-action version, delivers her most impressive screen role to date. Janet McTeer’s Princess Hermine effectively expresses both fear and humiliation in Himmler’s presence by subtle glances and simple hesitation, while Christopher Plummer appears to reinvent the reprehensible Kaiser, turning his character inside out and making him appear somewhat likable as he reflects back on his life with sadness and regret. He even appears to develop a clear vision of current events and his position within them. It’s a great performance.
But among those outstanding turns from a cast of theatre veterans comes an unexpected one; one with no stage experience of which to speak. Australian actor and former model Jai Courtney’s often pit-bull bluster in over-the-top, explosive action thrillers is toned down in The Exception to such an effective level, it’s often hard to imagine that this is the same buffed-up performer seen in Suicide Squad, the anemic Divergent, and as the son of Bruce Willis in the worst of the Die Hard series, A Good Day to Die Hard. During his early scenes, he can’t help but carry the baggage of those previous films, but as The Exception develops, and his character’s moral code is questioned from within, Courtney convinces. Beyond a doubt, he’s never been better.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)