The Exception review: A New Side to a Familiar Story
The Exception review: Well acted and directed, David Leveaux’s World War II film has some flashes of originality but ultimately goes with the familiar.
It’s almost surprising that there isn’t already a WWII streaming platform dedicated to movies and TV shows set during that era. A healthy young adult could probably watch two or three WWII movies a day for the rest of their lives and still not see them all. Call it World War Twolu. In other words, it’s tough to find a story that hasn’t already been told.
For English language speakers, the German side of the conflict still offers at least a few potential original stories – not many, but a few. The Exception manages to find one more small corner of the war to delve into, even if it does ignore history in favor of telling a familiar story. But still, at least it’s somewhat original.
Quick history lesson: During the last days of the First World War, German society was collapsing, but it wasn’t felt as keenly on the ground near the Front Lines as it was back home. The German soldiers remained as cohesive as any nation could be after four years of bloody war, even as the civilian population struggled horrifically. So when the German leadership – primarily the military – decided to surrender, many of the Germany soldiers felt like they had been betrayed.
Fair or not, much of that blame fell on Germany’s monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The war was mostly overseen by the military, but Wilhelm was seen as a weak leader. Days before the Armistice, while the German people were on the verge of total revolution, he was forced to abdicate his throne. He fled his homeland for the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war. Despite the demands of the Allies and a provision in the Treaty of Versailles that called for Wilhelm’s prosecution, the Dutch refused to extradite him. And so while Germany veered toward extremism and the Nazis, Wilhelm remained in the Netherlands, living off a generous allowance from the German government.
The Exception, based on the novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, delves into this lesser known footnote of the war, albeit with some major historical revisions.
The story begins when a wounded German soldier, Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), is ordered to take command of Wilhelm’s (Christopher Plummer) personal bodyguard. His mission is to protect Wilhelm and uncover a British spy working in the area.
Soon after arriving in the Netherlands, Brandt meets a Dutch housemaid named Mieke (Lily James). He then more or less sexually assaults her, but she’s kind of into it so the movie never really goes into it. Weirdly and kind of grossly, that then leads to a romance between the two. It turns out that there is more to it, but you have to overlook some truly weird moments to get there.
While the awkward and therapy-bound romance blossoms, Wilhelm and his wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz (Janet McTeer), plot to bring the monarchy back to Germany. They don’t want to overthrow Hitler, but they think the German people would be cool with the return of the aristocracy, even if Der Furher remains in control. When SS boss Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) drops by for dinner, their hopes are rekindled – even as the hunt for the spy intensifies.
If you are a history fan, this movie isn’t for you. In fact, it kind of shits all over the real story in order to tell a somewhat cheesy story about love in the time of war. Despite that, there are a few glimmers of something compelling that keep popping up now and then, even if they are a little underdeveloped. The characters are forced to confront their actions and decide what kind of people they are – there is one particularly memorable scene where Himmler discusses the “Jewish problem” that is chilling and is deliberately presented so casually that it will make your skin crawl.
The Exception looks great and is well acted, but it stops short of trying anything new and daring in favor of casting the characters as good guys and bad. Wilhelm is depicted as wrestling with the morality of dealing with the Nazis, which is interesting, but also short lived as he makes a clear decision. His wife, likewise, is conflicted by the lure of her husband regaining power and having to deal with the reality of it, but again, it is quickly resolved.
The Exception also rewrites history significantly. The film shows Wilhelm as a kind elderly man, but in reality, Wilhelm II was seen by many as an idiot during the war, and a fool after. He helped to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the Jews and even suggested gassing them when WWII began. He may have literally been insane. To make him seem noble is a little galling for history buffs, but whatever, it’s a movie. The real shame is that the truth would have been more interesting. It also would have given more weight to the love story. And by the time the film jumps back to that, the more store of morality and power is resolved and forgotten.
Again and again, The Exception hints at something interesting, then veers off. Even putting aside the potential philosophical angle, the film doesn’t devote enough time to establishing the connections that would make the third act have more punch. If anything, the film needed another 20 minutes focusing on character development.
Still, despite its shortcomings, the acting in The Exception helps to keep things interesting. Director David Leveaux gets strong performances out of his cast throughout, especially from Plummer. Even though her character is badly underdeveloped, James continues to make a case for superstardom, while Hollywood keeps going Rick Astley with Courtney, refusing to let him go. And hey, he’s a charming guy, but he continues to get huge roles in major franchises that then end up falling apart. It’s not really his fault, but his luck is terrible. Still, Hollywood likes him. Maybe one day audiences will too.
The Exception Review Conclusion
At this point, if a filmmaker wants to make a World War II movie, they better have a very good story to tell. Even now with hundreds – maybe even thousands – of WWII films in existence, finding a unique angle isn’t easy. At first, The Exception seems to have found something new to tell, and in some ways it does offering something fresh, but ultimately it falls back on familiar stories.
The Exception threatens to be a deep film, but it sadly backs off again and again. Instead, we get a decent but ultimately unremarkable film set in a mostly unknown corner of WWII. It has its high points but ultimately opts to walk a familiar path.
The Exception is rated R with a running time of 107 minutes.