Saturday, May 06, 2017

Tribeca ’17: The Exception

Even by the standards of dictatorial regimes, the National Socialists were acutely attuned to symbolism. As a result, the old Kaiser presented rather a problem for them. There are a lot of things you could say about him, but nobody could deny he was German. After the invasion of Holland, it became much easier for the Third Reich to keep tabs on the remnant of the Second Reich, but there will be other parties interested in Wilhelm II, leading to intrigue and deception in David Leveaux’s The Exception (trailer here), which had its American premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, Maj. Stefan Brandt was fortunate to avoid a firing squad when he balked at a horrific assignment while serving in Poland. Considering he now carries his disgrace like a white feather, it is arguably a blessing when he is ordered to take command of the Kaiser’s security detail at his isolated Dutch estate. Of course, he is not merely guarding the fallen monarch, he is also spying on him. However, Mieke de Jong seems to have the same assignment with respect to Brandt.

Ostensibly, de Jong is the new chambermaid, but it is pretty clear she is a spy of some sort, working with the local clergyman. She also happens to Jewish, which raises the stakes even higher. In his current state of physical and emotional pain, Brandt is particularly susceptible to her charms. He doesn’t even seem to mind much when he starts to learn the truth about her, but it puts him in an awkward spot when guests like Heinrich Himmler start dropping by. However, the revelation of their apparently class-spanning affair leads to a bit of a thaw with the Kaiser, who carried on plenty of his own scandalous affairs with servant girls, back in the day.

The circumstances of the Kaiser’s exile are mostly accurate, but screenwriter Simon Burke’s adaptation of Alan Judd’s novel takes great liberties with the Kaiser’s personality and speculates wildly as to what he might have done if given half a chance. (Frankly, we almost expect to see Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson arrive as houseguests.) Regardless, it is a situation of such deep intrigue, it seems strange a Len Deighton or Jack Higgins never plumbed it for a wartime thriller before now.

Go ahead and insert your own Sound of Music joke here, but it must be admitted Christopher Plummer is just an eerie dead-ringer for Wilhelm II in his final years. He clearly enjoys playing the gruff on the outside, soft on the inside militant blue blood. However, the real scoop coming out of Exception is the fiercely poised performance of Lily James, Disney’s live-action Cinderella, as the sexually resourceful de Jong. She develops memorably heated but murky chemistry with Jai Courtney’s Brandt. Considerably better than you might have heard, Courtney brings a soul-sick gravitas to the film that makes all his recklessness somehow believable.

Theater director Leveaux gives the film an old-fashioned vibe that quite suits the material. He and Burke are also wise not to spell out the backstory events that so disillusioned Brandt. It’s WWII, we can imagine more than enough. Nor do they try to mold him into a problematic martyr. With its blend of behind-the-lines espionage and danger-stoked romance, Exception is not all that removed from WWII B-movies, like Appointment in Berlin with George Sanders, but we consider that high praise. Classy looking and consistently fun, The Exception is highly recommended when it next screens May 20th and 21st at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, following its U.S. premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.