THE EXCEPTION, Belgium, 2017. Starring Lily James, Jai Courtney, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Eddie Marsan. Directed by David Leveaux. 107 minutes. Rated MA (Strong nudity and sex scene).
The title for this drama, quite worth seeing, is not at all exceptional. However, the title of the novel on which it is based, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, is more evocative.
There always seems to be an audience for British films or films from the continent which deal with World War II. Some are based on fact. The screenplay here is based on a novel but grounded in fact.
The setting is Holland in 1940. The Nazis have just invaded Belgium and Holland. One of the principal residents of Holland is the former Kaiser, Friedrich Wilhelm, living in exile after his resignation in 1918 in a mansion in the Dutch countryside, living with his wife and an entourage. He keeps out of the way, working on the property, proud of his collection of military uniforms, feeding the ducks. He is still ideological, fixed in rather aristocratic ways (after all he was one of the many grandchildren of Queen Victoria), longing for a restoration of the monarchy.
In Berlin, a young officer, Captain Brandt, wounded in battle, reacting against an officer who had massacred many people in a village, now has a desk job but is assigned to be head of security for the Kaiser and his wife. On arrival in the town, he encounters the local security officials, the officer who manages the Royal household, the Dutch staff, including a very attractive maid.
This is a fictional story about the Kaiser and his wife but it some commentators have indicate close relationships to facts.
The Kaiser is elderly and portrayed excellently by Christopher Plummer. Janet McTeer is certainly very good as his wife, more ambitious than her husband, with connections in Berlin, machinating behind the scenes so that the couple will be restored to their status by Hitler.
The captain does not seem at first a particularly interesting character. He is initially seen back in Berlin with a prostitute. He is immediately seductive of the maid. He is played by Australian Jai Courtney. She is played by Lily James.
There are power struggles in the mansion, the Princess rather haughty in her manner and proud of her household, Sigurd (Ben Daniels) is the proper officer who protects the couple, making sure that the Kaiser is not indiscreet in any outbursts, especially about the Third Reich.
There is news of a British spy in the village and audiences do not have to be particularly astute to realise that it will obviously be Mierke, the maid. While she is in a relationship with Captain Brandt, she steals off to the village to meet the pastor who sends messages to Britain and receives instructions. And the captain follows into the town.
He begins to doubt his loyalties in his relationship with Mierke but there is to be a significant event. Himmler announces that he is to visit the Kaiser and his wife and dine with them. Eddie Marsan and has only a few sequences as Himmler but makes the most of them and the sinister dialogue, especially a dinner table anecdote about experiments on young children and poisoning them. The Kaiser and his wife are in fact quite repelled. Captain Brandt then questions his loyalty to his country – with the Kaiser advising him to ask what his country really is.
The possibilities raised for the Kaiser and his wife to go back to Berlin – but Himmler throws doubt on the idea. The security agents track down the radio signal and so, as you might imagine, the finale of the film is how to get the spy out of the mansion, out of danger after the pastor has been arrested and tortured. What is the Kaiser’s attitude towards the maid and her behaviour? What will Captain Brandt do?
And so, there is action adventure, symbolic of the microcosm of the film and World War II focused on small Dutch village and the Kaiser’s mansion.
This film, and its cast, should appeal to those who enjoy World War II stories, fact or fiction.
Palace cinemas Released May 17th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.