Friday 22 January 2021

The Exception aka Undtagelsen (Denmark/Norway/Sweden 2019: Dir Jesper W. Nielsen)

There's a huge, and some would argue audacious parallel narrative going on in Nielsen's latest feature which, depending on how you feel about it, either makes The Exeception a rewarding or frustrating watch.

Four women work at a research library, the Danish Centre for Information on Genocide. The project manager is Malene (Amanda Collin), who has progressive cancer related arthritis; the others are her colleague and best friend Iben (Danica Curcic) who is still suffering PTSD after being held hostage - and escaping - while aid working in Nairobi, and the team secretary Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen). Making up the four is relative newcomer Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an older middle-class woman who doesn't seem to fit in with the team atmosphere.

Malene appears a little controlling of Iben who because of her experiences is referred to to as 'the hero from Nairobi' - for example, at a party where Iben is getting on well with mutual friend, the writer Gunnar (Magnus Krepper), due to their shared love of Africa, Malene asks to be taken home because of her arthritis, telling Iben on the journey that people like Gunnar are 'born unfaithful.' Malene will later sleep with him.

At work tensions between Anne-Lise and the others, principally baselessly orchestrated by Malene (who has, she confesses, begun to hate healthy people), increase, particularly when all of the women except Anne-Lise receive threatening texts from an anonymous source that they suspect is either from a Serbian war criminal who they have been researching, via a paper entitled 'Psychology of Evil', or someone closer to home. Iben and Camilla become drawn into Malene's increasing hatred of Anne-Lise and the office dynamic becomes three against one, a subtle change which their rather hands off boss Paul (Olaf Johannessen) is ineffective in addressing. Malene's partner Rasmus (Simon Sears) is an IT whizz who wants to send some spyware back to the message originator to find out their identity; what he discovers may or may contribute to his downfall.

The subject of the women's research is a Serbian war criminal named Mirko Zigic (Borut Veselko); psychologically he's one of the 10 - 30% of any army that, when asked to carry out atrocities, go over and above their required duties; basically he's insane. It is popularly believed that after the war Zigic became part of the country's mafia operations, but it's possible he may have arrived in Denmark.

And it's this narrative parallel - Malene's marshaling of her work colleagues in an escalating hate campaign against Anne-Lise without evidence to support it, alongside a more general overview, in the context of the Centre's studies, of how power works in the same way in the context of military dictatorships - that audiences are forced to accept. The parallel clearly wants us to reflect on Edmund Burke's famous line "for evil to succeed, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing" - evidenced in one character's brave action later in the film - although whether a group of bickering office workers can be comfortably compared with those who perpetuate horrendous war atrocities is a matter of speculation. 

The truth about the messages is less convoluted than might be suggested and the climax is arguably both soapy and melodramatic. Some of the mid-section scenes misfire, principally a sequence where Anne-Lise infiltrates Camille's choir looking for information, which may give us some key exposition but is also mildly silly. Unsurprisingly by the time all is revealed the women have been (mostly) forced to confront their own histories.

While The Exception (the title refers to those who act against likely psychological scenarios; "you can make yourself the exception to the rule, because you have free will", one character comments) asks a lot of the audience, I'm on the side of concluding it a success. Danish drama (on TV at least, and Nielsen has some experience here) has a habit of taking a relatively low level dilemma and exploring it in almost forensic detail; I'm thinking here both of Maya Ilsøe's family opus The Legacy (in which Lene Maria Christensen starred) and Adam Price's political drama Borgen, some episodes of which Nielsen directed, and which propelled Sidse Babett Knudsen to fame. The four women at the centre of the drama occupy their roles subtly and completely, and the script refuses to provide easy answers to any of the problems it dwells on. Over the top it may occasionally be, but I found The Exception riveting and extremely well made.

The Exception will be on all major UK Digital Platforms including iTunes, Sky Store, Google Play, Amazon, Virgin, Curzon Home Cinema & Chili from 22nd January 2021.

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