“The Exception” is a handsomely mounted World War II-era romantic thriller, enlivened by vibrant performances and vivid sexual encounters and inspired by a little-known footnote to history, the story of a ruler who left but never went away.
That would be Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, engagingly played by the veteran Christopher Plummer. Though the kaiser exited history’s stage when he abdicated in 1918, Wilhelm lived on in exile in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, a span that inspired Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” on which the current Simon Burke screenplay is based.
Though the kaiser’s presence anchors the thriller parts of the story, the romance is more than capably handled by the considerably younger pair of Lily James, madcap heiress Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey,” and Australian hunk Jai Courtney.
As put together by British theater director David Leveaux, making his theatrical feature debut, “Exception” breaks no new ground but it is a solidly done and always engrossing piece of alternate history, mixing real people and events with fictional ones.
The year is 1940 and topping the fictional list is German Army Capt. Stefan Brandt (Courtney), a brooding and enviably fit third-generation officer who is being held back from active duty because of some initially unspecified “business with the SS in Poland.”
When his new assignment comes in, the captain is not happy about it. He’s to go to the Netherlands to take command of the personal bodyguard of a man he’s assumed was dead, a man he’s told in no uncertain terms has “tremendous symbolic importance to the German people.”
The kaiser is living on a splendid estate outside Utrecht, shielded from pedestrian concerns by a loyal coterie that includes his aide-de-camp Col. Von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels) and his calculating empress, the Princess Hermine (the always excellent Janet McTeer).
Both of these people, and the kaiser himself, harbor the not exactly realistic hope that the former ruler will, if he plays his cards right, be called back to the German throne as “the physical manifestation of God’s will on Earth.”
As played by Plummer, whose physical resemblance to the real man is remarkable, Wilhelm is way more interesting than his entourage. An actor who is always a treat to watch, Plummer brings alternating severity and warmth to the part of a man whose mood swings were head-snapping.
Most of the time the kaiser is a genial, P.G. Wodehouse-first-edition-collecting elderly party who likes nothing better than feeding his entourage of ducks. “A duck will never blame you for his troubles,” he says with conviction, “or ask you to abdicate your throne.”
Speaking of thrones, talk of politics could turn Wilhelm apoplectic in an instant, screaming in fury at being stabbed in the back by the military at the end of World War I and excoriating Hermann Goering as “that oaf” who had the temerity to come to lunch wearing Plus fours.
Capt. Brandt, for his part, is bemused by the kaiser but more deeply interested in the fetching Mieke de Jong (James), a servant girl who is the newest member of Wilhelm’s household.
No sooner do these two lock eyes, in fact, than they proceed to passionately ignore Col. Von Ilsemann’s stern injunction that “female staff will not be interfered with.” The captain barks “take your clothes off” and the young woman immediately complies. Who knew proximity to the kaiser could be such a powerful aphrodisiac?
Much more serious stuff of course is also taking place on the grounds. There are strong rumors that a British spy is active in the vicinity, the dread Gestapo orders the captain to keep tabs on the kaiser’s visitors, and there is even the chance that top Nazi Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) will pay a visit.
These and other World War II thriller aspects, including deception and even genteel references to torture, get more prominent as “The Exception” goes on, but the truth is the erotic chemistry between James and Courtney is so evident that it’s mostly what we care about.
Of course, there are complexities in that story as well. Is Mieke exactly who she seems, and is the captain exactly who he thinks he is? Or is he, as the title pointedly asks, an exception? Love during wartime has its inevitable complications, and the fact that they are familiar doesn’t make them any less welcome.
MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles