There are period pieces that thrive on rich characters and fantastic stories and use necessarily rich production design to transport their audience to another time and place. This isn’t quite the case with The Exception. Though it takes place in the tumultuous time known as World War II with a principally German cast of characters, the drama at play in mostly rote and hackneyed, a romance that feels fresh off a Harlequin book rack without any stylistic trappings to elevate the material.
Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), the exiled king of Germany, resides in a Netherlands estate and awaits the day when his throne will be returned to him. Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) arrives to investigate the Kaiser’s estate; enemy communications have reportedly come from the property, implying that a spy might be in their midst. However, in his time there, he begins to fall for one of the maid staff, Mieke (Lily James), and it soon becomes clear that there’s more to Mieke than there first appears.
Now, leaving aside the obvious romantic conflict, the actually fascinating bits of The Exception lie in a B-plot about the Kaiser’s wife (Janet McTeer) attempting to convince the tired and aged Kaiser to step up and take back his throne. Plummer does an excellent job of conveying a prideful yet defeated old man, one whose prime has long passed and simply wants to live out the last of his days feeding ducks in an acknowledgment that his former glory will never fully return. It’s a character study that deserves to be the focus of a film all its own, but what glimpses we receive in the background of this one are the only bit of engagement one can expect.
Instead, we’re treated to Jai Courtney as a romantic lead, and never has his complete lack of screen presence been so draining on a film. The romantic dialogue between him and Lily James is often stilted an awkward, with characters often acting suddenly and without complex motivation. James is doing her best to pull off the secret seductive spy routine, but poor direction and the stone slab sounding board Courtney provides make that task too difficult for her to overcome. What results is a romance wherein lovers from opposing sides of a conflict fall in love for no apparent reason beyond physical attraction, unite in a heroic attempt to impact the war’s end in some small way, then woefully return to their own sides to wait for the day when they can be together. It’s tired, trope-ridden, and tedious to sit through, and it’s only exacerbated once you remember that the romantic lead we’re supposed to root for is an officer in the Nazi army.
The period setting of The Exception does allow for some fantastic production and costuming work, capturing a unique clash between pre-war German aesthetic with crisp Nazi militarism, but the story the film chooses to tell in that setting is not worthy of such visual splendor. This is a dull affair, a romance that is in no way titillating and is only partially redeemed by a show-stealing Christopher Plummer. Even if you like historical romances, this is likely to be an exception.