Tribeca Film Festival review: The Exception

“What else is there?” purrs Dutch housemaid Mieke to German-soldier-turned-lover Stefan Brandt when asked about why she follows orders.

It’s a moment that happens around the halfway mark of director David Leveaux’ film, The Exception, just before doe-eyed Mieke (Lily James of Downton Abbey) reveals herself to be Jewish.

It’s the type of honesty that could get some killed in the countryside estate of exiled German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer of Beginners), especially when there are rumors of a spy trying to infiltrate the home, but Capt. Brandt (Jai Courtney of Suicide Squad) has plans of his own that, when set in motion, cause allegiances to shift and hope to prosper.

For a World War II thriller starring an Academy Award winner, it’s this choice — to put love over duty, and to put Courtney and James’ tryst over more screen time for Plummer  — that waters down the impact of Leveaux feature film debut.

The Exception, which made its United States premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Special Screenings category along with 12 other films, doesn’t take its main attraction — Kaiser Wilhelm II — seriously enough, despite Plummer’s magnificent performance of a man trying to come to terms with the fact he might never return to his homeland. A country that is, of course, now thriving as it enters another World War.

From the opening scene chopping wood outside his mansion in Holland to his confrontation with Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan of Ray Donovan) near the film’s climax, the 87-year-old Plummer shines. However, he’s relegated to watch much of the plot unfold on the sidelines, like the audience.

James, who is undoubtedly beautiful and talented enough to warrant a bulk of the screen time, receives top-billing when the credits roll. And that doesn’t come as much of a surprise: once Mieke makes her introduction around the 10-minute mark, she’s in almost every scene — including the film’s final one.

In fact, her presence suffocates a lot of the action going on inside the household, and presents a quandary that should never be bothersome enough to slow down a historical period drama: Where are the rest domestic servants?

It’s noticeable.  

Mieke, a supposedly new maid in the estate, does all the chores for the household while the rest of the staff does what, exactly? Watch her at a distance?

Not too closely though. Mieke has time to run secret errands into town, as well as fornicate — graphically — with Capt. Brandt, who for a newly-appointed bodyguard of the Kaiser, never seems to apt at investigating the spy rumor or protecting his subject.

It’s unfortunate that the audience has to root to see more Plummer in a movie where loyalty and honor are such prevalent themes, and he’s playing a character so conflicted by them.

After 20 years of exile, what does Germany mean to him now? It’s a question The Exception dances around, but never totally settles on an answer.

Instead, the budding romance between Brandt and Mieke takes precedent over further exploration of history — and historical accuracy, like the Kaiser’s fictitious tolerance for his maid’s religious beliefs and background.

In the end, like the old saying goes: sex sells.

And history, well, it makes for a fine backdrop.

The Exception will be available on video on-demand May 30.