The handsome, sturdy film debut of acclaimed theater director David Leveaux is the kind of historical cinematic drama that has become increasingly rare in this golden age of television, which gives creators the added time to contextualize bygone eras.

The film begins in the early days of World War II, as Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is sent to the Netherlands, where Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) has been in exile since the end of the First World War. Officially, Brandt is there to protect the Kaiser, but his real reason is to spy on both Wilhelm and a British agent who has apparently infiltrated the Kaiser’s household.

Brandt arrives to find a very grumpy Wilhelm, who is still treated like royalty by his wife and staff even though he no longer has any power. Among his staff is newcomer Mieke (Lily James), a Dutch housemaid who has an instant sexual connection with Brandt. The underlying threat to Wilhelm and the mystery and passion of Mieke and Stefan’s relationship keeps things moving along, as does Roman Osin’s lush cinematography and composer Ilan Eshkeri’s stirring (if a bit expected) score.

But the real draws are Plummer’s passionate performance as the damaged yet unrepentant Wilhelm and the forthright sexual chemistry between Mieke and Stefan. Leveaux does an excellent job of keeping their affair balanced, and while an early scene of passion feels decidedly chauvinistic, it is immediately countered by a scene in which Mieke becomes the aggressor and Stefan her object. The Exception is the rare film that provides equal-opportunity nudity, and both James and Courtney give bold performances in and out of their costumes.

While the horrors of World War II have been frequently documented on the big screen, The Exception gives a slightly different look by showing the relationship between the Nazis and the German monarchy. On one side there was obvious, nearly unimaginable evil, while the other side demonstrated how much people in power were willing to overlook for pride, financial gain and societal status. It is an important message, particularly today, but Leveaux handles it deftly enough that it doesn’t feel as if the film is beating anyone over the head with its metaphors.

Despite these bright spots and the general quality of the film overall, there is still a familiarity to the delivery. While polished, the film lacks that extra dimension to make it truly special. One wonders how good The Exception could have been if Leveaux and, to a lesser extent, screenwriter Simon Burke (who adapted Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss) would have taken more risks. With the quality of the performances and the dynamic source material, this could have been much more than a merely good film.

Nevertheless, Christopher Plummer is at his regal best here, able to convey childish frustration in one second and wizened understanding in the next with the simple shift of his expressive eyes. He’s supported wonderfully by James, Courtney and Janet McTeer as Princess Hermine, and none of them try to match Plummer trick for trick. Instead, they disappear into their roles, letting The Exception’s true star shine, as he has onscreen for over 60 years.

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