The Exception is very nearly an exceptional film, but there’s something distinctly off about this contrived World War II melodrama. Strong performances from a fantastic cast very nearly make up for the film’s tonal inconsistencies and uninspired direction, but distinctly regressive sexual politics and a central romance that amounts to a staggering act of cognitive dissonance hamper the film’s capacity for greatness. It’s an enjoyably diverting and original piece of work — assuming you can get past an inciting incident fundamentally rooted in implausible rape apologetics.
The setup hinges on a Nazi officer (the ever-dull Jai Courtney) tasked with leading the personal guard of deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) in the lead-up to World War II falling for Mieke (a scintillating Lily James), a servant with ulterior motives. The duo’s initial interaction consists of Courtney’s Captain Brandt bluntly demanding that James’ Mieke remove her clothing, leading to a sexual encounter with clear consent issues that is played as awkward rather than horrific. When Brandt later tries to apologize for the assault, saying: “I’m sorry for how I was when we first … met.” Mieke’s incredulous “When we first met?” mirrored my sentiments exactly. That she then goes on to excuse her rapist’s actions and develop a seemingly genuine relationship with him boggles the mind of the narratively (and socially) conscious viewer.
For whatever reason Mieke gives Brandt a pass on the whole rape thing, and the audience is expected to as well. To my continued amazement, the film actually does a pretty passable job of building a decent romance out of this confoundingly wrong-headed premise. British stage director David Leveaux doesn’t do much of note visually, but his sense of pacing and his generosity toward his actors are commendable. First-time screenwriter Simon Burke, working from a novel by Alan Judd, has a knack for dialogue but falls short in the characterization department. Somehow the filmmakers manage to snatch a moderate victory from what should have been the jaws of ignominious conceptual defeat.
Plummer’s Kaiser Wilhelm may not be the protagonist, but he is unquestionably the star of the show. Plummer, an often neglected genre mainstay, gets to display an uncommon degree of range as the deposed monarch helplessly watching his kingdom fall prey to the perils of fascism. He’s supported ably by Janet McTeer as the delusional queen clinging to dreams of reclaiming the throne and Eddie Marsen delivering one of the most unsettling cinematic representations of Heinrich Himmler ever committed to celluloid. James and Courtney are both solid, but their roles as scripted by Burke are thanklessly thin when it comes to emotional dimensionality.
More entertaining than it has any right to be, The Exception is definitely not without its egregious faults. That said, it makes a valiant effort at humanizing a thoroughly (and justifiably) demonized Other, which is a laudable goal. If you can maintain suspension of disbelief as a woman who has built her life around a hatred of Nazis falls in love with the SS officer who rapes her, the film is not without its dubious charms. But I personally have a pretty steadfast policy of intolerance toward rape and genocide, and I don’t see anything here that would warrant an exception. Rated R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.