Sunday, August 11, 2019

Our August Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: David Leveaux's THE EXCEPTION

Q: Can an officer have a loyalty greater 
to anything other than his country?

A: First he must ask the questions...
What is my country? 
And does it even still exist?

The 2016 film, THE EXCEPTION, streaming now on Netflix, is a World War II drawing-room melodrama with dashes of thriller thrown in that offers another small story told at a distance from the war theater and its central tragedy.

The film gives voice to the consternation, in fact grief, of some Germans as they glimpsed their upright, organized culture devolving into a torture machine (and timed with our own fears about democracy).

This is a first film-outing for David Leveaux, admired and loved for his theater direction in England and on Broadway, here using a screenplay by Simon Burke based on Alan Judd’s 2003 novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) and his second wife, Hermine (Janet McTeer), above, are exiles living on a Dutch estate near Utrecht early in the war mid-1940. There he rails at those who cried for war all those years ago, ignoring his orders, bringing on World War I. Now he spends his days taking daily briefings from his loyal aide, Col. Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), chopping wood (an obsession), and feeding the ducks, who do not blame him for losing the first world war or his throne. 

Brandt, a German captain with a stomach full of shrapnel, has been recalled from the battlefield in Poland under suspicious circumstances (he should have been court-martialed if not shot). He gets off easy with new orders to Utrecht to head the Kaiser’s personal bodyguard (below).

Brandt is hunky Australian Jai Courtney (Divergent, Suicide Squad), very convincing, showing us through his eyes and his nightmares that he follows orders but takes exception to murderous excess. Here he meets Dutch maid, Mieke (Lily James of Downton Abbey), providing the ingredients for a sexy, dangerous coupling.

If the pair are the heart of this story, the elders are its soul. Wilhelm and Hermine are so well-written and played, they hold their own against the furtive lovers. (Plummer is now nearly ninety and grand; McTeer, always working, much awarded yet shunning celebrity, is priceless and perfect in her constant conniving over Wilhelm’s well-being and late career.)

Brandt (the moving force here) and the local Utrecht gestapo are tasked with uncovering an English spy in the area. (Wilhelm is sly: “We must alert the ducks”.) After a visit to Mieke’s room, Brandt finds gun oil on a cigarette pack he had dropped on her table (nearly everybody in WWII chain smokes). Presently the household is in a tizzy preparing for the visit of Heinrich Himmler; the estate must be searched top to bottom. Brandt stakes out Mieke’s room but finds nothing there to do with gun oil.

At dinner, Himmler (Eddie Marsan, below), who has come to ask Wilhelm to return to Berlin as figure head, chats about ongoing research in Potsdam to industrialize murder —the present killing of 10 persons per minute by injecting carbolic acid is inefficient. Some at table turn pale at this talk.

There are twists and turns with the spy thing, two offers to the Kaiser (one delivered by Himmler, the second messaged from Winston Churchill), a bumbling chase with Nazis yelling and 1940-era cars barreling to and fro, and hopeful prospects for the lovers who must part. But despite theatrics that are more silly than thrilling, the drawing room and backstairs doings elevate the reward to Downton Abbey-level satisfaction (which is to say very entertaining but not Wolf Hall or Gosford Park).

The romance offers a rare, perfectly erotic few moments and a screaming fight (he: you used me; she: I used myself), making you want this pair to end up together; and Wilhelm and Hermine conjure magic of their own. Lily James, in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Cinderella, could not put a princessly foot wrong but although appealing here, she’s too much the ingenue for the steely business at hand.

But no matter, the film has its charms and one imagines that director Leveaux will make the thrills in his next film as good as the interpersonals (that is, make the former either more thrilling or more satiric). As it is, the domestic affairs that play out in this bit of imagined drama are well worth the flaws.

The real Kaiser, below, (grandson of England’s Queen Victoria) never went anywhere — he died in June 1941 at his Dutch estate (one imagines as a complication of smoking).

The above post is written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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