"The Exception" is, simply put, an exceptional World War II thriller.
The film, though historical fiction, joins a growing number of compelling pictures about resistance to the Third Reich.
"The Exception" is set in May 1940 in the newly Nazi-occupied Holland countryside, using a movie script adapted by British stage director David Leveaux from Alan Judd's novel "The Emperor's Last Kiss."
German Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) has been dispatched to shield and spy on Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), living in palatial exile since the end of World War I with his wife and consummate lady of the house, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), and the sharp and loyal aide Col. Sigurd von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels).
The palace also contains a large staff, including Mieke (Lily James), an attractive, Jewish chambermaid. She's there for reasons besides making beds and tending to the family's wishes.
Mieke also has designs on the young captain, who quickly reciprocates, putting an ardent love affair at the heart of this suspenseful story.
All that's known of Brandt in the beginning is that his assignment came after nearly being court-martialed or shot for a military engagement in Poland. It's where Brandt received a long, ugly scar across his well-chiseled chest and shrapnel inside of it.
After seeing service on the front lines, Brandt's assignment is akin to a desk job, though he's warned by Dietrich, the local SS inspector, that if anything happens to Wilhelm he will be held personally responsible and shot.
Haunted dreams of children killed in a Nazi atrocity suggest Brandt's a German soldier with a conscience – though how much remains to be seen.
Although the Nazis blame Wilhelm for the country's failings, they want to keep the aging aristocrat around for political reasons. Their interest is to expose those with pro-monarchist sympathies and to draw out the identity of a British spy at the estate who's in cahoots with a captured pastor.
At the same time, Wilhelm and Hermine cling to their dream of returning to Berlin to share power. It's their hope that the captain's arrival, and an ensuing visit by SS head Heinrich Himmler (creepily portrayed by Eddie Marsan), will bring that about.
When Plummer's Kaiser isn't prone to enraged and self-pitying outbursts, including anti-Semitic rantings, he presents a rogue-like, devilish side that with a glint in his eye makes him seem like someone's kindly grandfather. It's left to Hermine and von Ilsemann to rush in and clean up his remarks when they might otherwise offend their Nazi sponsors.
"His earlier remark about he Fuhrer was simply a correction of fact, you understand, and in no way a criticism," Hermine explains.
At dinner, Himmler talks dispassionately about a new method being tested to kill people, sharing his disappointment that it is unable to kill children fast enough to meet the Third Reich's needs.
Afterward, Mieke corrects something Brandt said to her earlier: "They are the rule," she tells him. "You are the exception."
As the plot thickens and their entanglement deepens, questions arise over both Brandt's and Mieke's motives and loyalties.
A nerve-wracking chase scene, followed by an unexpected coda, brings this standout film to a close.
"The Exception" benefits from stellar acting, crisp direction and beautiful cinematography, and is a costume designer's delight. The title fits.
3.5 stars (out of four)
Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer and Janet McTeer star in movie about a German soldier who is sent to Holland to protect and spy on Germany's deposed emperor during World War II, and falls in love with a Jewish chambermaid. 107 minutes.
Rated R for sex and nudity.