For­bid­den love in “The Ex­cep­tion”

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By Stephanie Merry Jo­han Voets, A24 Films

★★¼5 War drama. Rated R. 107 min­utes.

Set against the back­drop of Ger­many’s 1940 in­va­sion of the Nether­lands, “The Ex­cep­tion” is a tense ro­man­tic thriller made up of equal parts sus­pense and nu­dity.

Jai Court­ney plays Ste­fan Brandt, a cap­tain in Hitler’s army tasked with keep­ing an eye on Kaiser Wil­helm II (Os­car-win­ner Christo­pher Plum­mer), who’s in ex­ile in Hol­land. With re­ports of a Bri­tish spy in the area, Ste­fan might be called upon to thwart an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt — or face dire con­se­quences.

The young sol­dier is hard to get a read on, but this much is clear: He’s haunted by night­mares, he bears a mys­te­ri­ous, sexy scar across his six-pack abs and, when he sees a woman he likes, he doesn’t mince words.

“Take your clothes off,” he or­ders Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids, upon only their se­cond en­counter. Ap­par­ently not one for small talk ei­ther, she com­plies.

So be­gins an un­likely af­fair — be­tween a Nazi and a Dutch ser­vant who’s har­bor­ing a few se­crets (in­clud­ing Jewish an­ces­try). Ste­fan, how­ever, doesn’t care about such things; he’s not one of those Ger­man sol­diers. Naively, he be­lieves that most Nazis share his en­light­ened view.

An­other story un­folds along­side this lust-fest, and it’s a deeper one about dashed hopes fo­cus­ing on Wil­helm and his wife, Princess Her­mine (Janet McTeer), both of whom fan­ta­size that Hitler might in­vite them back to re­claim their throne and for­mer lives. In the mean­time, Wil­helm spends his days chop­ping wood in the for­est or feed­ing ducks by a lake.

His most im­por­tant de­ci­sion is what to tell the cooks to make for din­ner each evening.

The two vet­eran ac­tors are as good as ever, es­pe­cially Plum­mer, whose char­ac­ter swings from cud­dly to irate. Wil­helm takes a shine to Mieke, and they form a sweet bond, one that’s com­pli­cated for the au­di­ence by her un­cer­tain mo­tives.

Theater di­rec­tor David Le­veaux main­tains a firm grip on pac­ing, scene-set­ting and char­ac­ter-de­vel­op­ment, keep­ing the pro­tag­o­nists sym­pa­thetic, while rais­ing the stakes. The dan­ger ul­ti­mately be­comes real, es­pe­cially for Mieke, when Hein­rich Himm­ler (Ed­die Marsan, gen­uinely ter­ri­fy­ing) de­cides to pay Wil­helm a visit. Sud­denly, the re­al­world con­se­quences of Hitler’s Fi­nal So­lu­tion be­come clear.

The fi­nal act is a nail-biter, re­in­forced by com­poser Ilan Eshk­eri’s clever score, which in­cor­po­rates the sounds of tele­graph trans­mis­sions, re­mind­ing us that es­pi­onage is never far away.

But the story starts to fall apart as it nears the cli­max. Wil­helm — once an in­trigu­ingly volatile char­ac­ter — starts look­ing more and more like a mag­i­cal fairy god­fa­ther.

But all is not en­tirely lost. For all its late-in-thegame silli­ness, “The Ex­cep­tion” is a solidly acted, well-told tale about how love of coun­try holds up in the face of other, less na­tion­al­is­tic pas­sions.

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