Director: Jesper W Nielsen
Writer: Christian Torpe (screenplay), Christian Jungersen (novel)
Starring: Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Lene Maria Christiensen
By Caz Armstrong
“The Exception” (“Undtagelsen”) is a new Danish psychological thriller from director Jesper W Nielsen, who has a track record working on dramatic thrillers like “Borgen,” “Redwater” and “Greyzone.” “The Exception” is a thriller with a point to make about innate evil and how that manifests in seemingly innocent people. But the result is a film of such conflicting proportions it’s like oil and water unable to combine.
Four women work at a library-esque NGO specialising in war crimes and genocide. Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is clearly the most disliked in the group and the others bully her. When the women start to receive threatening emails tensions escalate and they suspect each other of being the perpetrator. Or could it be an actual war criminal bent on revenge for the things the women have written about him?
The second half of the film takes a different tone, focusing on deeper psychological issues and the potential for physical harm rather than bullying. Unhinged behaviour now dominates and the question of who sent the emails becomes more life threatening.
In the first instance, this is a film about workplace bullying and psychological harassment. We see gaslighting techniques and some truly squirm-inducing scenes of shrewdly unkind behaviour.
One can’t help but notice the gender dynamic with a male boss trying to keep the peace between four women who are bitching and bullying like cruel schoolgirls. In reality, bullying is perpetrated by both men and women but the stereotype that it’s a women’s trait, and that men just get along better, is more pervasive. So it’s sad to see that angle played out here.
It’s notable that the author of the original novel, the screenwriter and the director are all male. While I have not read the original novel, the film does verge on making comments about women’s behaviour and propensity for meanness and toxicity that are hopefully not intended.
Perhaps more concerning though is that the film tells us our innate human evil can manifest in either workplace bullying or genocide. While the underlying point may have some validity, the direct comparison between the two borders on the offensive, particularly as it leans on the stereotype of women being bullies.
As the workplace bullying angle gives way to physical violence and psychotic behaviour the storyline about war criminals becomes more literal. Genocidal war lords don’t have much correlation with bitchy women in a library so it creates a film of two halves, each of which would have made a decent film on their own but not so much when put together.
Despite being let down by the structure of the story, there are a few things that make it a very interesting film to watch. The lead actresses have genuine electricity together, particularly during scenes of gaslighting and bullying. They all bring a deep intensity to the situation which provides the gravity it needs in order to be taken seriously. Anyone who recognises that kind of toxic situation will appreciate that it is not being taken lightly.
The cinematography by Erik Zappon really makes us sit up and notice some visually interesting locations like the swirling wood and imposing shelves of the library, and the frosted glass panels at the apartment building. Even the outdoor shots maintain a sense of claustrophobia with endless windows, or a park which seems almost entirely enclosed.
The score by composer Henrik Lindstrand uses dramatic and emotive strings to give the film a beautiful yet serious backdrop and a high budget feel. The music here is very rich so is worth paying particular attention to.
Ultimately the two parts of the story being told here are of such different scales that they just don’t mix. We’re left with a clunky and incoherent structure which undermines both aspects. We have a toxic workplace that doesn’t seem to matter in the end, and some key facts whose ultimate importance far outstrips the weight they were originally given.
Strong central performances, recurring motifs, and the rich audio and visual experience make for an interesting watch but unfortunately they’re not enough to emulsify this disjointed film into something palatable.