Ostensibly the centre of this tale, which is set in Holland in World War II, is the love affair between German officer Brandt (Jai Courtney) and British spy Mieke (Lily James).
They meet when Brandt is assigned to keep an eye on Kaiser Willem II, who has been living in exile in Holland since Germany’s defeat in World War I and whom the Nazis fear could be the object of an Allied assassination attempt and therefore a propaganda coup. Mieke is working undercover as a maid in the household. It is though Christopher Plummer as Willem whose performance dominates the film.
Based on a novel by Alan Judd and marking the feature film debut of theatre director David Leveaux, this is a well made film with a strong story, which holds the attention throughout and is elevated from the ordinary by Plummer’s fine, multifaceted performance. Willem is a vain and autocratic man, disappointed and yearning for his former glory. He can also be avuncular, a bit of a flirt and, despite being partly responsible for the death of a whole generation of young men, he shows a surprising humanity. He is also refreshingly outspoken when it comes to Hitler, whom he sees as a ridiculous clown. The film has an amusing sense of derision overall towards the ridiculousness of the Nazis. Her husband’s outspokenness is however alarming to his wife (Janet McTeer), who is trying to keep in with the Nazis in the hope that Hitler might restore the monarchy and who demonstrates considerable skills in terms of damage limitation.
Courtney and James make an appealing and indeed very sexy young couple – though as an opening chat up line Brandt’s command to her to ”Take your clothes off” strikes one as somewhat lacking in finesse! Seems to work for Mieke though. Brandt, you see, is the “exception” of the title, demonstrating that not all Germans were bad guys. Disillusioned with his Nazi masters, he abandons his allegiance to the Reich in favour of helping Mieke, who also happens to be Jewish. If he had any doubts about his loyalties, the arrival of Eddie Marsan as a chillingly reptilian Heinrich Himmler with a remarkably silly haircut would dispel them.
With his theatre experience Leveaux revels in getting good performances from his actors. McTeer is strong as Willem’s supportive and politically deft wife and the impressive cast also includes Ben Daniel’s as the Kaiser’s aide and Mark Dexter as the ruthless police inspector, who erroneously believes he is controlling Brandt.