What it's about:
Set during the height of World War 2 where Adolf Hitler had effectively exiled the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm, and his wife to the Netherlands to “wait out the war”, a young soldier is assigned to the Kaiser's home as head of security but whose main mission is to spy on the household and to report any seditious, anti-Nazi activities going on there. He quickly falls for a bold, outspoken housemaid who has plenty of secrets of her own – not least of all being that is Jewish.
What we thought:
Despite its setting and its plot, it would be a stretch to call The Exception a “Holocaust film” - both because it only touches on the Holocaust and the rampant anti-Semitism going on in Europe at the time and because these truly dark historic events are used mostly as context for the story its trying to tell, rather than the story itself. The result is a film that plays out like a mix of a thriller, a sweeping romance and a rather unique domestic drama, all played out against a backdrop of the unparalleled horrors of Nazi occupied Europe.
It's no masterpiece as its often conflicting elements do have a habit of bumping into one another and causing the film to, if not spin off its axis, then at least wobble a bit. However, in a week where 9/11 fails almost completely to balance awful historic events with more lightweight entertainment, there is something to be said for the fact that not only is The Exception not a total disaster, it ends up being a compelling and solidly enjoyable piece of work.
Director David Leveaux is known primarily as a stage director, while screenwriter Simon Burke has spent most of his career writing for British television but for a pair of, effectively, feature film novices, they do some impressive work here. This isn't the most visually cinematic film ever and it has the quiet intimacy of a small stage production or a modestly budgeted TV show but it tells its story – which, it should be said, seems to be largely made up – with wit and efficiency.
Again, tonally it is on somewhat less sure footing as the film's generally accessible tone and its adherence to genre-conventions (be it political thriller or star-crossed romance) do inevitably feel at odds with the honest and unflinching way the film presents the rampant casual anti-Semitism of Europe at the time. There's no real reference to Hitler's worst acts but the film also doesn't shy away from the totalitarian nature of the Third Reich and even features a few scenes with the notorious Heinrich Himmler, played with skin-crawling creepiness by a typically excellent Eddie Marsan.
Arguably, the lighter tone of the film can be seen as an intentional reflection of the mundanity of evil; that this quite idyllic country-life is at once an oasis from the evils of the Nazis but also inevitably and inescapably tinged by that very evil. Indeed, I have little doubt that this is exactly what Leveaux, Burke and the original novel by Alan Judd intended. And, to be fair, this certainly does come through enough to give the film a greater sense of depth than the basic story might suggest. It just never works quite well enough to utterly dispel the film's general tonal uneasiness.
This sense of not-quite-working also applies to the the film's three main stars. The thoroughly lovely Lily James does excellent work here in a role that requires equal measures of toughness, secretiveness and vulnerability, while absolutely no one would be surprised to hear just how good Christopher Plumber is as Khaiser Wilhelm. Unfortunately, the side is let down by Jai Courtney who, despite being one of the few bright spots in the otherwise terrible Suicide Squad, has yet to win me over as either a charismatic leading man or a particularly versatile or expressive actor and he is entirely overshadowed here by his far more impressive co-stars.
So, yes, The Exception manages to avoid being both as bad as it rightly could have been and being as good as one might hope but it's not just a near-miss. It may be far from perfect but between its assured filmmaking, interesting subtext and (mostly) excellent performances, it's hard not to recommend it. You don't necessarily have to rush out to see it but it's certainly worth a look in when you get the chance.