With his palsied arm and delusions of relevance, Wilhelm II is a handy stand-in for the enfeebled state of films about World War II. In 1940, when The Exception is set, the former German kaiser is an exiled statesmen, clad in military brass and longing to return to influence despite the fascist army that’s risen in his wake. Wilhelm is a fascinating figure: The grandson of a British Queen and son of a Prussian prince, his fundamentally conflicted loyalties propelled his demise. But it’s odd to place him at the center of yet another narrative that makes a monument out of a few meager pangs of conscience. Wilhelm had no impact on WWII, but he had mixed feelings about it. In 2017, it seems that’s enough to merit a feature-film treatment.
What’s nonetheless engaging about this film, adapted from Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, is how cannily it incorporates elements of spycraft and sheer trash into this familiar formula. After a dreamy prologue, the film opens on the formidable chest of Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced SS officer with an appetite for sex and schnapps. As a sort of punishment for his weak leadership serving in Poland, Brandt is sent to Wilhelm’s (Christopher Plummer) estate in the Netherlands, where there are reports that a British loyalist has infiltrated the kaiser’s domestic staff. Moments after being warned against fornicating with the help, Brandt is called to dinner by the housemaid Mieke de Jong (Lily James). “Take your clothes off, please,” he says. She obliges, and the parties quickly reverse roles in a subsequent scene.
The Exception doesn’t waste time feigning that anyone other than Mieke is the spy in the kaiser’s midst, nor does it pretend that the love affair between a self-proclaimed “Jewess” and a Nazi officer is anything more than a plot device. Beyond its blunt efforts at titillation, the film’s romance is a bland mix of lust and espionage, building to a scene where a gun symbolizing the impulse toward fascism comes between the couple. In its early scenes of frank nudity and transactional sex, the film suggests an earnest spin on Black Book, particularly when its action-star lead is introduced as the very model of a hulking, factory-issued Nazi. Ultimately, there’s nothing meta or surprising about the proceedings, which unfold with the efficiency of a page-turner. Courtney, always on the verge of bursting out of his officer’s uniform, gives a terse, truculent performance that perfectly suits the film’s perfunctory nature.
Any sense of grandeur here comes mostly from the set design and photography, full of creamy interiors and piquant shots of the kaiser’s lonely estate, and in a few scenes of Wilhelm naïvely lusting to return to a homeland that’s on the verge of one of history’s great atrocities. Lurking over strategy maps, Plummer conveys both Wilhelm’s prowess and fundamentally erratic nature: The kaiser seems prone to lurch into fits of rage and sanctimony at any moment, but Plummer demonstrates the tragedy of his irrelevance with a necessary modicum of restraint, underplaying his moment of awakening during a visit from notorious Nazi goon Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan).
Best of all is Janet McTeer as Hermine, Wilhelm’s wife and a former princess, slyly tweaking a thankless domestic role into that of a steely protector of the kaiser’s legacy. Hermine is rather extraneous to the film’s climactic grapplings with morality in the face of atrocity, but McTeer is very keen on expanding the film’s narrow purpose. The Exception asks its characters to decide whether they’ll follow orders or stand up for what’s right, but McTeer reminds us that not everyone is afforded the chance to determine their fate.