The Exception, 2020.
Directed by Jesper W. Nielsen.
Starring Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Lene Maria Christensen.
When four co-workers receive a series of threatening emails, workplace frictions that were previously bubbling away under the surface start to evolve into suspicions of a more sinister nature.
There’s a moment midway through Jesper W. Nielsen’s moody Danish drama where one of its central characters, catching a glimpse of herself in a broken mirror, stares momentarily at her fractured reflection. As an indicator of a damaged psyche, it’s a compelling, if overly familiar visual trope. Here though, its effect is unintentionally twofold, also serving as an inadvertent metaphor for the story at large: a series of interconnecting subplots gradually pieced together in what is an occasionally striking, but largely uneven tale of trauma, distrust and dark secrets.
Not to be confused with the raunchy WWII film of the same name from 2017 starring Lily James and Christopher Plummer, The Exception sets its action in the present day, at a small Copenhagen NGO, where tensions between the four female co-workers start to grow after a series of anonymous, threatening emails begin to circulate. But like David Leveaux’s feature debut, this atmospheric thriller calls on the long, dark shadow cast by Nazi Germany (among other 20th Century atrocities) to do much of its heavy lifting.
An opening monologue musing on the collective mentality of Germany in the 1930s hints at what is to come: an examination of how evil can seemingly spread like a silent, deadly virus. And, sure enough, the women—whose work concerns issues of genocide and war criminality—soon find themselves being slowly corrupted by the murky side of their own nature. Feeling like an outsider, Librarian Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen) battles to contain her own aggressive impulses, while Secretary Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen) struggles to conceal a dark truth about a previous affair. Marlene (Amanda Collin) becomes increasingly bitter as the fear of arthritis sets in, and Iben (Danica Curcic), her friend and co-author, is haunted by the spectre of a past trauma.
While its thematic foundations often feel a tad heavy-handed, compounded by the occasionally overbearing strings of Henrik Lindstrand’s score, there’s a deftness to The Exception‘s commitment to its novelistic origins. Adapted from Christian Jungersen’s 2006 novel, Christian Torpe’s screenplay shrewdly retains much of the deft nuance, unease and uncertainty found in the most engrossing of page-turners, extruding the maximum amount of disquiet from its brooding atmosphere as drip-fed revelations start to fall into place and the truth becomes increasingly more difficult to pin down.
So competent and unsettling is the build-up, in fact, that when the third act does eventually take shape and the narrative descends into moments of sudden violence, it becomes hard to shake a feeling of imbalance. There’s a lot to admire here, but with so many weighty ideas being bandied about, and its director’s extensive work on the small screen, it’s a wonder if this story might have been better served as a TV miniseries, allowing its more explosive, emotional episodes the breathing room they so desperately require.
As it is, Nielsen’s film leaves a rather underwhelming taste on the tongue. The final minutes, however intricately plotted, however neatly tied to an earlier throwaway moment, ultimately fall back into familiar genre territory. The Exception is, sadly, no exception.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.