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article imageReview: TIFF 2016: ‘The Exception’ should be the rule in historical drama Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 20, 2016 in Entertainment
‘The Exception’ is an incredibly engaging adaptation starring Christopher Plummer in a fictional account of the German Kaiser’s exile and re-acquaintance with the reigning powers during WWII.
Historical dramas almost always run the risk of being dry, expansive pictures that fail to find the balance between entertaining and informing audiences. Of course it’s important to know and understand the past, but the advantage of film is it can be more enjoyable than a textbook or classroom. A movie is permitted flourishes for theatrical effect and some leeway regarding events in the narrative in order to adequately convey the real-life incidents. Even adapting a story from a book can require some adjustments to engage theatre audiences. The Exception is almost an anomaly in this area in that the historical recreation manages to do all of these things correctly.
Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is considered a disgrace to his German uniform by many, yet he’s been provided a second-chance following a severe combat injury. His assignment is to take command of the soldiers guarding Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) who was exiled to the Netherlands after WWI, which is now under German control. In addition to protecting the head of the displaced monarchy, Brandt is to spy on his activities and visitors. However this assignment has some quirks because in spite of being a very likeable man, the Kaiser has few reservations about saying what’s on his mind in front of anyone, including criticizing Hitler and the Third Reich. Nonetheless, most of the captain’s attentions become focused on Mieke de Jong (Lily James), a servant girl who is smart, attractive and harbouring secrets of her own.
This film gives a brilliant script to incredibly capable actors, who effectively convey the drama, humour and tragedy of the characters and their situation. Courtney and James have wonderful chemistry, conveying their affection for each other in even the most restrictive conditions with a simple glance or smirk. Their dedication to their conflicting duties, regardless of the harm it may cause the other combined with the instinctive knowledge that neither would allow harm to befall the other, is the recipe for a classic and captivating love story.
Meanwhile at 87, Plummer still has enough charm and wit to singlehandedly capture an audience’s attention for an entire picture. He consistently and inadvertently dominates every scene with the Kaiser’s candid observations and sharp intellect. He also receives notable support from Janet McTeer, who plays his more cautious wife determined to find their way back to the throne in Berlin with the assistance of their loyal subordinate, portrayed by a very regal Ben Daniels.
While most of the film’s events are removed from the horror in Germany and surrounding countries, the invasion does drag some of the violence into the Dutch backyard. From soldiers ransacking the Kaiser’s country home for evidence of a potential spy to brutal interrogations for the same information to atrocious news of the “progress” being made by the Nazi death machine, the former monarchy is slowly made to realize Germany is no longer the same country they left all those years ago. A visit from Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), head of the SS, is preceded by great hope of good news, but is quickly soured as he delivers his own version of good tidings and further proves Brandt’s capacity for empathy is not shared by his comrades.
David Leveaux is an award-winning theatrical director, but this is his first foray behind the camera. Nonetheless, his experience generates expertly led dialogue and a strong sense of space in a select number of locations. For instance, the distinction of a rendezvous in one bedroom versus another is not lost in the narrative nor is the distinction of how one utters such nuanced dialogue as “Take off your clothes” followed by a camera that doesn’t discriminate between male and female nudity. Leveaux’s attention to detail and how an audience perceives a scene is quite keen.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2016 coverage.
Director: David Leveaux
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily James and Jai Courtney
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