Opening this week:
The Exception—Has any actor since Paul Newman aged as well as Christopher Plummer? He seems to get more majestic-looking every year, and he has more wry, mischievous charm now than he did as a young man, by quite a large margin.
Having played the aged, gulled Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, he now plays another washed-up historical figure, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in this roiling yarn, the feature debut of Brit stage director David Leveaux. Based on Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, it’s set near the beginning of WWII in the Netherlands, where Wilhelm has been living in comfortable exile with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), feeding ducks, chopping wood and brooding over the loss of, you know, WWI and his throne.
The Nazis, who have just invaded the Netherlands, loathe and mistrust the Kaiser, but aren’t quite ready to eliminate a relic for whom the German people retain a fondness. So they send a young SS Captain, Brandt (Jai Courtney), disgraced by an earlier act of conscience, on the dead-end assignment of guarding the old man against the possibility—a long shot, he’s sure—of an assassination attempt.
As he glumly enters the Kaiser’s manse, Brandt catches sight of a darkly beautiful housemaid, Mieke (Lily James). She catches sight of him right back, and the two immediately develop one of those unspoken sexual passions that arise so conveniently in tales of this sort. As their intimacy increases and he learns, among other secrets, that Mieke is Jewish, Brandt’s already tenuous loyalty to the Reich is tested.
For stretches The Exception seems like potent moral drama, and for other stretches it seems outrageous, on the borderline of camp, like a sanitized prequel to The Night Porter. Either way, though, it’s a tense thriller. I found myself caring for these people whether their plight was plausible or not.
All of the acting is strong, from the intelligent hunk Courtney to James with her angry erotic avidity to McTeer’s pitiful Princess to Ben Daniels as Wilhelm’s sad, loyal aide to Mark Dexter as a vexed Gestapo man. But the anchor is Plummer, as the handsome, irrelevantly regal old Wilhelm, trying without success to mask his bitterness and guilt behind a rueful, chuckling humor.
Indeed, the only performance quite as vivid as Plummer’s comes from Eddie Marsan in the small role of Himmler, who drops by with a proposal for the Kaiser. The ever-resourceful Marsan’s portrait is deeply repellent and terrifying—a murmuring, milquetoast monster.