Has any lion in winter ever roared like Christopher Plummer?
In British theater director David Leveaux’s WWII thriller “The Exception,” Plummer plays Wilhelm II, the exiled emperor of Germany and king of Prussia who, having abdicated the throne after the defeat of World War I, has spent the last two decades at the Dutch manor Huis Doorn. It’s another era and another kind of man entirely, but as he did in 2009’s “The Last Station” as Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, Plummer is again an eccentric historical figure pottering around a regal estate.
Few can fill up an old house like Plummer. Since the Salzburg villa of “The Sound of Music,” some of Europe’s great homes have tried, and failed, to wall-in his majesty. At 87, Plummer, who gave us one of the great King Lears 13 years ago, has grown from matinee idol into our great emperor of divided kingdoms.
“The Exception” is based on Alan Judd’s historical novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.” The year is 1940, and Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a German captain in the rising army of fascist Germany, is sent to mind the exiled kaiser in Holland, which Hitler has conveniently just invaded. He’s told to monitor the aging monarch, a regrettable symbol of “old Germany” to the Nazis.
“If anything happens to him, Captain, you’ll be shot,” he’s ordered, with a grin. “And I’ll be the one to do it.”
But the captain is far from the only one to feel death around him. Everywhere hangs a heavy wartime atmosphere of morals and lives slipping away. The kaiser is surrounded by loyal attendants and his second wife, Princess Hermine (an excellent Janet McTeer), who by letter and graft is trying to restore her husband’s place in Berlin.
A demure Dutch maid, Mieke (Lily James), is also on hand and, we quickly learn, is an undercover agent for the British. She and Brandt begin an affair, further convoluting their loyalties. This relationship is perhaps too much at the forefront of Simon Burke’s script, but Courtney, playing an arrogant young officer with increasing doubts about his service, shows a greater depth here than the action star has previously.
When not chopping wood or feeding the ducks, Plummer’s kaiser is a roiling mix of regret and frustration: a king without power. His contempt for the Nazis is growing, even while he holds out hopes for the reinstitution of the monarchy. At dinner, he bitterly explodes: “I gave my life to the fatherland and this is my thanks!”
A test of the kaiser’s ability to watch his tongue comes with a visit by SS head Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), a dinner that coincides with German intelligence closing in on Mieke. Himmler, cool and vile, is the new Germany. On the front steps, he clips the kaiser’s lengthy introduction with a stiff “Heil Hitler.”
This is somewhat well-trod ground; one looking for a household of combustible Nazis and international spies could always turn to Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” for one. But the sturdy, engrossing “The Exception,” far more nuanced than the month’s other film featuring a fearsome kaiser (“Wonder Woman”), makes a moving portrait of individuals recalibrating their allegiances under the maw of the Third Reich.
How much sympathy one can summon for a Nazi captain and one of the men behind WWI is, admittedly, questionable. (Historians debate how significant a role Wilhelm, a militaristic ruler prone to ill-considered outbursts, had in starting the conflict.) But the film is about seeing beyond immediate patriotic duty, and the movie’s central question is a thoughtful and painfully relevant one of national identity:
“One must answer,” one character says, “what is my country and does it even still exist?”
(At Glenwood Arts.)
Rated R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence.