Romance across enemy lines

June 23, 2017

Jai Courtney’s agent, whoever that is, deserves some sort of medal for talking Courtney into taking the male romantic lead in “The Exception.”

Even if this little, frankly steamy World War II romance gets lost in the shuffle, and I hope it doesn’t, it should become a cult favorite among fans of Courtney and co-star Lily James of “Cinderella” fame and give a boost to his reputation as an actor.

In the film, based on a 2003 novel by Alan Judd, Courtney plays wounded Nazi Capt. Stefan Brandt. After surviving a terrible battle in Poland, Brandt is assigned to attend Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer), who along with his devoted wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) has been living in Hitler-enforced hiding in the Netherlands to ensure no movement to reinstate the monarchy can gain traction in the grim, waning years of the war. On assignment, Brandt meets and falls in love with one of the Kaiser’s servants, Mieke de Jong (James), who is in fact a Jew and a spy determined to assassinate Hitler’s head of the SS Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) when he comes to visit the Kaiser.

The Nazis know someone in a nearby village, a priest in league with Mieke, is using a radio and is getting closer to zeroing in on the signal. Mieke must act before she and the priest are caught.

Directed by Brit first-timer David Leveaux, “The Exception” opens in a crowded arthouse field and has gotten some publicity for the work of the marvelous veteran Plummer.

But it is Courtney and James who steal the show. A scene in which aristocratic Brandt exploits Mieke would be offensive if not for the fact that she is enamored of Brandt and plays along knowing she will gain the upper hand. It’s a clever bit of sexual gamesmanship (gameswomanship?) that you don’t often see in a movie, and it adds heat to the film’s atmosphere of sexual intoxication in the midst of all the cloak-and-dagger derring-do.

The villains of the piece are an unseen Hitler, a suspicious Nazi officer (Mark Dexter) who also lusts for the beautiful Mieke, and the SS soldiers who accompany Himmler on his visit and up the ante in uncovering the plot against Himmler.

Courtney, an Aussie best known for being an often villainous hard-body presence in such low-rent franchise films as “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “Divergent” and “Suicide Squad,” establishes his credentials as a romantic leading man here.

James, who made the mistake of playing the lead in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” following the smash hit “Cinderella,” more than makes retribution for that egregious error here. She is mesmerizing. “The Exception” is another summer season sleeper. See it.

(“The Exception” contains nudity, sexually suggestive scenes, profanity and violence.)