NBFF 2017 Review: The Exception

Closing out the 18th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival is The Exception, a World War II drama that may as well be called The Good Nazi. Adapted from the novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd, the film tells the story of a German Nazi Captain who falls in love with a Jewish Dutch spy. The conceit is pulpy enough to fit right in with Paul Verhoeven’s great 2006 WWII thriller Black Book, but there is a major problem in the film’s attempt to be anything more than serviceable at best. Leave it to star Jai Courtney to make a film like this duller than it ought to be.

Set in 1940, the film begins with Courtney’s Captain Stefan Brandt being sent to an unoccupied region of the Netherlands to take command of security for Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) on the remote estate they live on. It’s something of a tradeoff, as Brandt was put on this lowly assignment due to his efforts not to go full-Nazi when called to act. This is a reprimand of sorts as a result and there is also an ulterior motive. Brandt is also supposed to weed out a possible spy.

This is where Lily James comes in. She plays Mieke de Jong, the newest chambermaid in the Kaiser’s household, who Brandt quickly takes advantage of the first time he sees her. This also happens to be where the film makes its first misstep. Brandt is continually a bland and bullish character. There may be a quick turnaround on the part of Mieke to make this sudden relationship seem like one to root for, but the film does very little to make these two seem like anything more than movie stars ushered into a physical romance that an audience is supposed to care about.

Part of the problem is the setup and how it strives to make sure you don’t think about Brandt as the kind of Nazi you generally enjoy seeing punched in the face by Indiana Jones. There is so much boring backstory given to this guy in order to make you aware that he may be big and strong, but also soft-hearted and fine with the Jews and anyone else his fürher may not be so crazy about. Despite the mature content, there is no risk to make this character, as well as the others, more shrouded in conflicted morals.

Jai Courtney gets a lot of grief from me, which is mainly due to how capable I know he can be when not pushed into bland leading man roles. Here he finds some decent notes to play when interacting with the clearly bad Nazis but generally sucks the fun out of the film. James fares better, though her role as a spy necessitates more than just looking worried, which is once again where seeing these characters deal with gray areas could have paid off.

I suppose special attention should go to Plummer, who has had an interesting veteran career in undoing the iconic good image created by his role in The Sound of Music. Spike Lee’s Inside Man had Plummer playing a man who had profitable dealings with Nazis. The Exception has him playing the anti-semitic, self-aggrandizing Kaiser Wilhelm. Granted, the film makes him into a warm and cuddly old man version of Kaiser Wilhelm, but Georg von Trapp he is not. Plummer is fine here, especially when not focusing too much on who he is supposed to be playing, but his added energy only goes so far.

Director David Leveaux makes his cinematic debut with this film, after spending many years directing theater. His work on The Exception is competent enough but ends up feeling rather vapid. For a film featuring a forbidden romance of sorts, the most entertaining bits come from Plummer and McTeer’s insistence on how old-fashioned standards must be held onto. The Exception never enters engrossing chamber drama territory, but the moments of levity do at least add something to a film so lacking in exciting incidents. There is never much suspense in how the espionage angle will play out and we are left with little payoff to truly make a more memorable journey.

There are ideas here that could have amounted to a better film. The Dutch setting allows for some fine scenery, even if the film feels limited in terms of scope. None of the cast feels underutilized, even if some of the performances are merely fine. It’s more a matter of how unchallenging this all feels. With so many films of this nature, The Exception proves to be no exception when it comes to showing audiences just another WWII drama.

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for more of my coverage of the festival!

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