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Christopher Plummer as Kaiser Wilhelm II in “The Exception.” | A24

‘The Exception’: Love, secrets, Nazis and a legend in the Kaiser role

SHARE ‘The Exception’: Love, secrets, Nazis and a legend in the Kaiser role
SHARE ‘The Exception’: Love, secrets, Nazis and a legend in the Kaiser role

“The Exception”is an exceedingly odd movie in which one of the romantic leads is a Nazi, the other Jewish and Kaiser Wilhelm IIis vaguely charming, when he’s not being a virulent anti-Semite.

So, yeah. Odd.

And yet for the most part it works, both as a bizarre romance and a fanciful World War II almost-thriller. This is in large part thanks to the cast, particularly Christopher Plummeras the Kaiser. He’s been exiled to the Netherlandsafter Germany lost World War I,but Hitler doesn’t dare kill him, or let anyone else do it, worried that the German people still hold him in some symbolic regard.

Thus Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney)is reluctantly assigned to lead the group of German soldiers who make up the Kaiser’s security detail; in reality he’s there to spy on him and see if he says anything subversive or otherwise uncomplimentary about the Fuhrer. (Not-a-spoiler-alert: He does, though Brandt is more bemused by it than anything else.)

Brandt isn’t the stereotypical movie Nazi. (The exception. Get it?) He’s wounded, for one thing, in body but more so in spirit. He’s haunted by dreams of a slaughter he witnessed in Poland,and disillusioned by the direction the Nazis are headed in. There is talk of some bad business with the SS.

But he’s loyal to his country, if nothing else, so he soldiers on, literally, and reports to take command of the Kaiser’s detail. Immediately he and the new maid, Mieke de Jong (Lily James),make eye contact, and the next thing you know she shows up in his quarters on the grounds. He tells her to take off her clothes, and she does. The next time they’re together alone she tells him to do the same, and he does.

Thus begins a forbidden affair, made all the more dicey when Mieke tells Brandt that she is Jewish.

The Kaiser spends his time with his loyal aide-de-camp (Ben Daniels),analyzing and criticizing Hitler’s military moves on a map, and feeding ducks. Mieke joins him in the latter activity (and sometimes in the former) to the consternation of his wife (Janet McTeer,also excellent), who busies herself lobbying Hitler for a symbolic return to the throne.

Jai Courtney in “The Exception.” | A24

Jai Courtney in “The Exception.” | A24

There’s a British spy afoot, and it won’t take too long to figure out who it is. Director David Leveaux,known for his stage work, based the film on Alan Judd’snovel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,”and he is less interested in keeping secrets than in introducing them, revealing them and seeing how they play out.

That’s particularly true when word arrives that Heinrich Himmler,the head of the SS, will join the Kaiser for dinner. Eddie Marsan’s portrayal is a kind of twisted genius, curious and scary, making Himmler a weird, evil little man capable of great danger, as his chilling choice of dinnertime conversation proves.

Several elements come together in the end, which plays more like a caper film than what’s gone before it, and is less satisfying than what leads to it.

While Courtney and James have an undeniable chemistry, Plummer is the clear highlight here. How he manages to balance the character as a kind of lovable old coot and a short-tempered bigot is something to see. And worth seeing.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network

★★1⁄2

A24 presents a film directed byDavid Leveaux and written bySimon Burke. Rated R (for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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