In the WWII drama The Exception, young stars in danger of pigeonholing are allowed to grow while established ones both support that development and show once more why they themselves are among the best actors alive.
The first of those spreading their wings, Jai Courtney breaks from his generally intolerable ways as demoted German officer Capt. Stefan Brandt. Assigned to lead the guard protecting exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), whom Brandt thought was dead, he moves onto the estate and attempts to size up his new assignment.
While the Kaiser remains aloof and stubbornly regal, his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) serves as a go-between, conveying the couple’s shared hope that Adolf Hitler will reinstate His Highness as king to provide stability to the rapidly changing nation.
Filtered through the reliable vessels of Plummer and McTeer, the royal pair’s desperation is palpable and inspires Courtney to follow their lead, inspiring easily his most composed and adult performance to date.
Meanwhile, Lily James literally shows a new side — more than one, actually — in her multiple nude scenes, but in peeling back the layers of her enigmatic Dutch maid Mieke de Jong, the Downton Abbey actress admirably sheds the naive tics that have lately typecast her in princess/damsel in distress roles.
Guiding the young stars to these major improvements is Tony-nominated director David Leveaux, translating his command of the stage to the screen while also producing more competently constructed — yet no-frill — shots than one might expect from a first-time filmmaker.
Simon Burke’s adaptation of Alan Judd’s 2003 novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss stirs the core four together in every possible permutation, and as Mieke and Brandt grow closer, the concept that he is the titular aberration within the Nazi ranks is unimaginatively spoken aloud though also shown through his honorable actions.
His fondness for his new friends are tested, however, with a visit by Heinrich Himmler, brought to life in a skin-crawling turn by Eddie Marsan, complete with the awkward overly-buzzed haircut that Hitler’s No. 2 sported.
Though Himmler’s presence cranks up the tension considerably, the way in which Brandt’s conflicting loyalties are resolved lacks the richness and surprises of his preceding time on the sprawling property. The mundanity isn’t enough to dissuade interested viewers from seeking out The Exception, but it’s understandable if many feel a bit cheated by the film’s final turns.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse