The long career of Christopher Plummer only truly turned “glorious” decades after his most famous turn — as the dapper, testy and sexy Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” a movie he has long playfully dismissed as “S & M.”
He’s twinkled in his old age, turning on the charm as Tolstoy (“The Last Station”), Doctor Parnassus and John Barrymore and won an Oscar as an old man who comes out as gay in his dotage in “Beginners.”
But it takes every bit of sparkle, every inch of his still ramrod-straight posture, every syllable delivered in his plush, plummy voice to render one of history’s great villains “cute” in “The Exception.”
Plummer plays Kaiser Wilhelm II, the headstrong poseur whose bantam rooster belligerence had a large hand in causing World War I, in this film set in the last year of the now-abdicated Kaiser’s life.
It’s a World War II thriller so out of date the only words to describe it are also obsolete — Potboiler and Cornball.
But the casting has a few delights, and the action beats — easily guessed so VERY far in advance of their revelation — go down easily, if with a requisite eye-roll.
A German officer (Jai Courtney of “Terminator Genesis” and “Divergent”) has survived wounds in the invasion of Poland and has a new mission. Capt. Brandt is put in charge of the one-time emperor’s bodyguard, in Holland. That’s where the Kaiser fled after abdicating and Capt. Brandt’s first realization that Hitler’s invasion of France and the Low Countries has begun is this new assignment.
“If anything happens to him, Captain, you will be shot. And I will do it!”
There is one paramount rule he’s given when he shows up at the estate where Wilhelm Hohenzollern now lives. “The female staff are not to be interfered with.”
So that’s the first thing he does. Screenwriter Simon Burke (working from an Alan Judd novel) and director David Leveaux deserve a few drinks tossed in their faces over the film’s initial “love” scene. It’s a laughably arch parody of brutally efficient German lovemaking.
“Take your clothes off!” Brandt says to the fetching Dutch beauty (Lily James), a maid, who breathes DEEP, bosum-filling breaths. And complies.
The old man of the house, poring over military maps with his aide as if he was still in charge, is charmed by the new Dutch maid, too.
“Tell me, my child, would YOU have invaded Holland?”
Yes, Your Highness.
“And what is your MILITARY objective?”
“It’s, uh, VERY nice!”
But Mieke the maid has a secret, and Hitler’s government has a scheme. And this Dutch House of Hohenzollern, ruled by an empress (Janet McTeer) desperate to return to Royal Court life, is willing to ignore the already-known crimes of the thugs in charge, if it will get them back to Berlin.
Plummer is delicious as the aged popinjay, a man most offended by the poor etiquette and table manners of Hitler’s gang. He must swallow all of his imperious bile when Hitler’s “pig farmer” SS chief shows up for an official visit.
The great English character actor Eddie Marsan takes on the dull, doughy, heartless corruption of Heinrich Himmler and becomes, in just a trio of scenes, a screen exemplar of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.”
James is fetching and pouty, but can’t suggest the inner turmoil that puts Mieke into this house and into compromising positions, with big plot points given away in the trailer, film’s posters and easily guessed by any viewer five minutes after we’ve met her.
Courtney, similarly gives us nothing of the lovesick mental/moral struggle that Brandt is presented with, an allegedly civilized and ethical man wearing the uniform of monsters.
Speaking of “compromising positions,” that’s the one “exception” to how dated “The Exception” plays — its sex scenes. But even though they’re understated, they leave less to the imagination than this prim, miscalculated production intended.
MPAA Rating:R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence
Cast: Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Eddie Marsan
Credits: Directed by David Leveaux , script by Simon Burke, based on the novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” by Alan Judd. An A24 release.
Running time 1:47