exception1fixbuttonSometimes you have to be visited by the devil to know that he really exists.  While “The Exception” might be a familiar historical thriller, certain scenes stand out and will stick with you.  And with a cast this talented, it is definitely worth a look.

It’s 1940, German Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) lives in Holland under the watchful eye of the Führer.  Publicly, NAZI soldiers spread the word that the Kaiser may be assassinated, but secretly, they are manipulating everything.

Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is assigned to protect the Kaiser.  Brandt has been badly injured in an earlier conflict, but his physical wounds may not be as deep as his emotional ones.  When he becomes romantically involved with a young Dutch-Jewish servant named Mieke de Jong (Lily James), her distraction directly affects his duties.  But can duty to country and duty to one’s love co-exist?

This old-fashioned and handsomely mounted historical espionage thriller marks the directorial debut of English director David Leveaux.  The screenplay by Simon Burke (who has written a lot of television including work on the Arctic mystery thriller series “Fortitude”) is an adaptation of a novel called “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd.  In the hands of Leveaux, the concentration is less on plot and more on personalities.  And his cast is certainly game.

Plummer is terrific as the Kaiser, a role perfectly suited for his age and formal acting style.  He’s able to project as only an actor of Plummer’s experience and training can.  Paired with the always fantastic Janet McTeer, who plays his wife Princess Hermine, the two are an excellent match.  But Lily James gives her all here revealing a mature side that may have been teased in “Downton Abbey” but shows that she’s a brave actress.  We will see her in the wildly popular “Baby Driver” next week, where she plays Baby’s irresistibly cute waitress girlfriend.  Her star is certainly on the rise.

Another surprise here is Jai Courtney, who occupies most of the screen time as the conflicted Capt. Brandt.  The beefy actor who could be confused with Tom Hardy was introduced to many through the “Divergent” franchise.  He’s consistently good in material that relies more on his brawn than his emoting abilities.  Here he’s given a bit of both.  Required to disrobe in places, we get an eyeful including full-frontal nudity as his character happily beds down James’ mysterious housekeeper.  Raw sexuality is on display for sure, and it hits the mark.

Where Courtney and James give us the obvious in their roles, Plummer and McTeer play on nuance.  Their relationship is more subtle and layered and is unveiled carefully.  This comes to a colorful head when SS leader Heinrich Himmler (a terrific Eddie Marsan) shows up to have dinner with the Kaiser.  We see strain on their relationship in a very meaningful way.  It’s a chilling dinner party conversation that uncovers the devil they ignored in exile in Holland.  But can they blissfuly continue and return to Berlin?  This nagging question is answered in a beautiful exchange that Plummer and McTeer handle so delicately that their performances belong in a whole other movie, maybe a slightly better one.

As a sumptuous guilty pleasure (an overused, but appropriate phrase here), I thoroughly enjoyed “The Exception.”  It’s not as convoluted as, say, Verhoeven’s “Black Book” and reminded me in tone of Richard Marquand’s “Eye of the Needle.”  It’s all very familiar, but well worth your time.

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