Pas­sion in love and war

Ro­mance is the real draw of the 1940-set thriller

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES ON STAGE - By Ken­neth Tu­ran

“The Ex­cep­tion” is a hand­somely mounted World War II-era ro­man­tic thriller, en­livened by vi­brant per­for­mances and vivid sex­ual en­coun­ters and in­spired by a lit­tle­known 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.” Rat­ing: R, for sex­u­al­ity, graphic nu­dity, language and brief vi­o­lence. Run­ning time: 1 hour, 47 min­utes Opens: Fri­day

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).

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.”

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.”

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.

JO­HAN VOETS/A24

Lily James por­trays a ser­vant in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s home who be­gins a ro­mance with a brood­ing Ger­man cap­tain.

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