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Love and war are longtime movie companions, but the pairing in "The Exception," a World War II morality drama with plenty of steamy sex, is more bizarre than most.
Set in May 1940, at the height of the Nazis' dominance in the war, the movie centers on Capt. Stefan Brandt (played by "Suicide Squad" star Jai Courtney), a German army officer with a new assignment: supervising the unit guarding Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), the former German monarch now exiled to the Netherlands. Conveniently, the Nazis have recently invaded Belgium and Holland, so a few more German soldiers won't be noticed.
Brandt is still suffering from shrapnel injury while stationed in Poland, an assignment that his Gestapo minders in Holland speak of in hushed tones. But his wounds don't deter his pursuits in the bedroom and his first order of business when arriving at the Kaiser's estate is to order a servant, Mieke ("Baby Driver" heroine Lily James), to strip naked for him. Soon, she's returning the favor, sneaking into his quarters and making him drop his drawers in a rare instance of a movie showing more of the male lead's privates than the female lead's.
As the two start to fall in love, Mieke reveals to Brandt that she's Jewish. What she doesn't tell him, but he soon learns, is that she's also spying for the British and that she's hiding a pistol in her bedroom.
Meanwhile, the Kaiser's wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), is hopeful that Hitler will restore the German monarchy, and she and Wilhelm can return to power in Berlin. When Brandt is told that Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), chief of the feared SS, will visit the Kaiser, Hermine sees it as a chance to lobby for the monarchy and, possibly, a chance to use the monarchy to tone down Hitler's nastier impulses. (Though the movie's source material, Alan Judd's novel, "The Kaiser's Last Kiss," was published in 2003, it's difficult not to hear in Hermine's scheming echoes of today's congressional Republicans, pushing an agenda and claiming they can moderate the unhinged man they propelled to the White House.)
Mieke, on the other hand, sees the visit as an opportunity to assassinate one of Hitler's closest aides. Brandt is in the middle, with duty to his country on one side and his love for Mieke and his revulsion at Nazi brutality on the other.
Renowned theater director David Leveaux, making his feature-film debut off a script by TV veteran Simon Burke, creates some sizzling scenes between Courtney and James. He also gets the best out of Plummer, who brings in sly twinkle to the Kaiser's desperation at being left behind by history.
But whatever moral dilemma Leveaux aimed to turn into a tense drama in "The Exception" is destroyed by a laughably bad finale, an action sequence more fitting for an "Ocean's Eleven"-style caper than a serious-minded war drama. Striking the perfect balance between action and drama is, this movie shows, an exception, not the rule.
A German officer is torn between love and duty in this wildly uneven drama set in World War II.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, July 7.
Rating • R for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence.
Running time • 107 minutes.