Tag Archives: drama

Review: The Exception harkens to classic war-time romances

The Exception made a brief appearance in the movie theaters before heading to the DVD and on-line streaming market. This is where the film is likely to find its commercial success. It lacks the fast-paced action, grand themes, and scenic worlds that lend themselves big screen storytelling. In many ways, The Exception seems like a throwback to the period romantic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

This World War II story centers on a forbidden love that develops between a German army officer, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad, UnbrokenDivergent) and a female servant working in the household of the exiled German Emperor, Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, BeginnersThe Last Station). The Kaiser and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, Maleficent, Albert NobbsInsurgent) are living in Belgium awaiting an opportunity for the former monarch will be reinstated in Germany. Brandt has been transferred by German headquarters to lead Wilhelm’s security detail.

In retrospect, Wilhelm’s hope to return to Germany seems hopelessly naive and detached (and toward the last years he appeared increasingly delusional). But the Kaiser’s character is rooted in the real life dynamics of post-World War I German culture, society, and politics. Germany’s disastrous early experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), kept hopes for re-establishing the German monarchy alive for many in the aristocracy and military. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated rather than renounce his claim to the throne, and he hoped to be invited back to Germany in a prominent government role.

German loyalty to the former monarch was, in fact, problematic for Adolph Hitler. While Hitler never considered reinstating Wilhelm, the former Kaiser’s stature was sufficiently high his death (in 1941) was used for propaganda purposes reinforce German values of honor and commitment to German aspirations for European hegemony. This historically grounded reality sets up important plot points in the movie.

When Brandt is transferred to the Kaiser’s security detail, he meets Meike de Jong (Lily James, Downton AbbeyBaby Driver), a servant in the Kaiser’s castle. They begin a romance despite rules against fraternization between staff and the soldiers. Complicating matters is the fact Meike is Jewish. Following his heart, Brandt refuses to break off the romance. Intrigue deepens as the SS (a German paramilitary police force) discover a British agent is working in the town. Meike is also an informant for the Dutch resistance, reporting on the activities with the Kaiser’s house.

The Exception is generally well executed and acted. Plummer successfully projects the naive optimism of the banished Kaiser while also adding humanity to his borderline delusional character. McTeer’s portrayal of the Kaiser’s ambitious and devoted wife, Princess Hermine, creates the necessary tension to keep the outcome of the clandestine romance in question throughout most of the movie.

Unfortunately, the plot is predictable, providing little that is fresh or innovative with the exception of a small plot twist at the end. Virtually nothing in this film pushes or even comes close to a creative boundary. The result is an entertaining but largely un-engaging film.

The relationship between Brandt and de Jong as characters is also problematic. The first day at the castle, Brandt and de Jong notice each other, making eye contact several times. This presumably is an attempt to demonstrate mutual attraction. Later that evening, however, de Jong delivers an invitation to dinner with the Kaiser to Brandt in his private quarters. Brandt orders de Jong to strip, and he rapes her (although physical violence is not used or attempted). This scene clearly establishes the master-slave hierarchy. Soldiers by virtue of their status and rank, could take advantage of the subservient role of women.

Yet, just a few nights later, de Jong enters his room again and voluntarily has sex with Brandt after discovering he was wounded on the Eastern Front. If this were a ploy to extract information from Brandt, this turn of events and de Jong’s actions would be plausible. But just days later they are in what appears to be a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. While Brandt’s shift from lustful physical satisfaction to romantic interest is plausible—in the first case it was “just sex”—de Jong’s attitude as the rape victim would be much more difficult. Yet the film does very little to address how the character overcomes the indignity and humiliation of her rape other than a flimsy apology by Brandt after he has developed personal feelings for her.

The Exception is a film that harkens back to the naive innocence of the romance-dramas of the post-World War II era. Despite this inconsistency, the romance mixed with international intrigue creates enough tension and conflict to keep audiences entertained throughout the movie despite the unimaginative plot.

The Exception scored a 7.9 (out of 10) on my rubric, earning a C+.

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Review: Manchester-by-the-Sea Grips Audiences with Gritty Realism

Manchester-by-the-Sea is one of those movies I sometimes hesitate to see. I am pretty sure I am going to like it, but in a crowded field of really good movies, which ones do I want to give up to see this one? Well, Manchester-by-the-Sea was well worth the time, and it’s earned its spots as a nominee for academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island), and Best Original Screenplay. The movie is a gritty, compelling, down to earth story of tragedy and heartbreak that still sits in my brain, propelled by fine, grounded film making and exceptional acting.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York), the story is set in New England and focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone, The Finest Hours) a handyman in Quincy Massachusetts who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights, Bloodline) dies from heart failure. He finds that Joe has assigned him guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom, Kill the Messenger). Lee is forced to confront the challenge of parenting a teenager and demons of guilt from the tragic loss of his children years earlier. He also must face the legacy of the tragedy that still lives in the memory of the townspeople, as well as Joe’s friend and partner George (C.J. Wilson).

The story starts out slow, as films of this nature tend to do; they are not action films. But the characters and story grip the audience as soon as Lee Chandler returns to his hometown. The story is complex and layered, with the screenplay providing a textbook example of how to reveal only what is absolutely necessary to keep the audience engaged, leave enough unsaid to maintain tension, and provide just enough information to keep the pace moving forward. Lonergan does an excellent job of splicing in flashbacks at just the right moments to enrich the plot and reveal the intertwined lives of the characters. We learn why some relationships are tenuous, some are frosty, and others are too hurtful to confront. The audience, however, is never overwhelmed with their complexity and layers.

It’s a poignant but real story, and Affleck leaves no doubt that he owns this film although the supporting cast is also superb. Central to the story is whether Lee can put the defining tragedy of his young life behind him. Other characters have found ways to forgive him and move on, but Lee struggles. Affleck deftly shifts from happy go-lucky young husband to self-loathing, guilt ridden wreck, but plays the part with a balance and reserve that keeps the audience rooting for his recovery. Viewers might leave the film a bit disappointed because it lacks a clear resolution. Then again, this is a story about real life, not fantasy.

Manchester-by-the-Sea has earned more than $50 million since its release in mid-December 2016, an astounding and well-earned return on its $8.5 million production budget. Producers Matt Damon and Chris Moore (among others) have proven once again they have a knack for finding a compelling story that can become a gripping movie without a big budget or A-list actors. This movie, however, might be the vehicle to put Casey Affleck back on the path to the A-list.

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