As he proves yet again as the aged Kaiser Wilhelm II in The Exception, Christopher Plummer can put more shading into fewer syllables than any actor alive. He began his career as a brilliant show-off in the Olivier mode, fell into decadence (boozing, womanizing, taking dull parts in duller epics), and, after age 60, climbed back to respectability, tackling the greatest roles onstage and — beginning with his peerlessly egotistical Mike Wallace in The Insider — achieving a new level of subtlety onscreen. Plummer hasn’t fully shed his cunning or his histrionics (really: Would we want him to?), but he has moved steadily inward, illuminating an interior he once left purposefully opaque.
The new movie is one part history to one part fanciful melodrama. It’s set in 1940 in rural Holland, to which Wilhelm was exiled following Germany’s defeat in World War I. In the film as in life, the ex-kaiser mostly chops wood, plays host to illustrious guests, babbles incoherently about Bismarck, and maintains that the war wasn’t his idea. As The Exception begins, the Reich is invading the Netherlands and has assigned an S.S. lieutenant named Brandt (Jai Courtney) to take up residence and keep Wilhelm safe. Although Wilhelm hates Hitler’s brutality (the kaiser disliked Jews but not enough to kill them), he does admire the Führer’s military acumen, and he nurses the hope that his countrymen will come to their senses and bring him home. His younger wife, Hermine, a.k.a. “Hermo” (Janet McTeer), is even more delighted by the prospect of renewed royalty.
Courtney’s Brandt is actually the film’s title character, embarking on an affair with a maid named Mieke (Lily James), who might well be a spy or at least have her own agenda. They have barely spoken a word when he tells her to take off her clothes. It’s a mark of her spunkiness that the next time they meet, she demands the same of him. Gradually we learn that Brandt isn’t such a bad fellow. He signed on for a proper war of army against army, not the slaughter of women and children. He’s a patriot but not a monster. Gradually, too, we see that beneath the kaiser’s anti-Semitism, delusional pride, and foolishness is a fundamentally honorable man.
The premise was a stretch in Alan Judd’s novel (originally titled The Kaiser’s Last Kiss) and is less plausible in Simon Burke’s screenplay, which adds a kiss-kiss-bang-bang climax. But it’s always nice to be reminded that, even among the worst people on earth, there are gradations of badness — though it’s a mighty steep curve that lets an S.S. officer and the kaiser off the hook. Compounding the nuttiness, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is used as a signifier of hope.
It must be said that there is offensive ahistorical melodrama and rattlingly good ahistorical melodrama and that The Exception belongs firmly in the latter category. The superb English stage director David Leveaux keeps the pacing taut while creating space for his actors to work their magic. Courtney and James make a credibly riven pair of lovers — headlong, wary, and headlong again. McTeer wrings every drop of complexity from a woman who could be viewed as a dull-witted climber. Eddie Marsan’s frigid Himmler will haunt your dreams. And then there is Plummer, who is smart enough to show the kaiser’s ennoblement side by side with his regret that it took him so long.
*This article appears in the May 29, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.