Fantastic performances and some very powerful scenes don’t stop The Exception from feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity, as it makes one misstep too many to fulfil its potential as a film that is effective and impactful throughout.

Based on Christian Jungersen’s book of the same name, the film follows four women who are colleagues at a small NGO in Copenhagen that deals with human rights abuse, genocide, and other crimes against humanity throughout the world, investigating the causes of these crimes and their perpetrators. In amidst this heavy but important work, a dynamic starts to form between the colleagues that descend into cold, callous workplace bullying, which soon develops further into outright paranoia.

The film attempts to blend these two plot threads together, to varying levels of success. As previously mentioned, the central performances are all excellent, and they form the backbone for one of those threads. Danica Curcic is superb in the central role as Iben, a devoted and passionate part of the group who is haunted by her experiences in Kenya, where she was taken hostage. Her performance is thoroughly believable, and Iben comes across as a nuanced, well-realised character who is really attempting to wrestle with what is going on while dealing with her own issues around her PTSD and trying to support her friend. That friend is Malene (Amanda Collin), whose struggles at work are exacerbated by her debilitating arthritis, which seems to be worsening. Collin, again, does an excellent job bringing another character to life whom the audience can totally sympathise within one scene, and find difficult to be around the next, as the film tries to help the viewer to understand all of the women’s perspectives. Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen) is also involved and seems a calmer, more supportive presence around Iben and Malene.

Then there’s Sidse Babett Knudsen as Anne-Lise, whose character is once again delicately handled. Knudsen is superb, and a lot of the film’s most resonant scenes are centred around her and her reactions to events and how they make Anne-Lise feel. The way the film shifts perspectives so adeptly does provide a fully rounded picture of each of the women, refusing to paint any of them in broad brushstrokes, and it serves to only increase the tension when these perspectives clash. The film is at its best when the colleagues are trading backhanded barbs at each other, their reactions shifting as the situation changes between them and things seem to become more clear.

It is a shame, as a result, that the film doesn’t fully capitalise on this. Attempts to link the group’s struggle to understand each other’s problems with an overarching explanation of the human capacity for evil and how people can start to see atrocities as the right course of action work at times, but at other times the film opts for the overdramatic when it could be more subtle. There is enough in each of the actors’ performances to portray what the film is so eager to hammer home, and the writer-director team of Christian Torpe and Jesper W. Nielsen could have taken a step back and allowed them to do so. Instead, that work is undone somewhat by the film’s attempts to do too much, as scenes of excellently orchestrated and slowly simmering tension (bolstered by some claustrophobic cinematography and a great score) are unravelled by the way it approaches its increasingly disparate narrative threads.

This leads to a conclusion that fails to live up to some of the film’s early promise, and a script that was once taut and interesting descends into the generic and uninteresting. Even the philosophising, which was at times a worthy accompaniment, feels a lot more blunt by the end. It is a shame, and while there is still plenty here that is worthwhile, there is nevertheless the sense that if the focus wasn’t lost on what made it work, The Exception could have been a lot more than it ended up being.

Dir: Jesper W. Nielsen

Scr: Christian Torpe (based on the book by Christian Jungersen)

Cast: Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Lene Maria Christensen

Prd: Miriam Nørgaard, Marcella Linstad and Signe Emilie Bjørke

Music: Henrik Lindstrand

DOP: Erik Zappon

Country: Denmark/Norway/Sweden

Year: 2019

Runtime: 116 minutes

The Exception is available on digital download from January 25th.

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