From first-time showrunners Hania Elkington and Simon Duric, The Innocents marks yet another venture into the young adult genre for Netflix. In fact, the series shares similarities with several of Netflix’s recent teen forays – its darkly stylish, Scandinavian setting is akin to The Rain’s backdrop and its storyline of teen runaways draws comparisons with The End of the F***ing World. Where The Innocents sets itself apart is in its shapeshifting, supernatural occurrences and its unapologetically romantic portrayal of first love. Although its saccharine tone is unlikely to have universal appeal, its teen-angst drama and supernatural thrills are sure to delight teen audiences.
We meet star-crossed lovers June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) once the besotted couple have already decided to run off together. There’s a lack of context to help involve the audience emotionally and little sense of how this sizeable decision came about. Consequently, it’s hard to feel connected or buy in to their relationship at first. This leaves the heavy-lifting on relative newcomers Groundsell and Ascott, who both put in charming, sincere performances, despite the script’s lack of characterisation. Groundsell’s engaging, affecting turn quickly makes June an endearing figure and Ascott exudes an appealing charisma and earnestness from the off. It’s a shame that The Innocents often slips into cheesy territory, with schmaltzy, lazy dialogue, yet it’s a testament to both actors that the pair’s chemistry still evolves over the course of the season. By the end, their interactions feel authentic and you genuinely become invested in their relationship.
Both face their own set of challenging home lives: June’s stepfather, John (Sam Hazeldine), is extremely controlling, while her brother, Ryan (Arthur Hughes), suffers from agoraphobia and lives in a separated outhouse; Harry’s days revolve around looking after his dad, who’s in a virtually vegetative state, while his mum (Nadine Marshall) works long hours as a police officer. John is aware of June’s dormant ability and plans to move the family to an isolated Scottish location once she turns 16. However, having kept their relationship a secret, the pair run away on the eve of June’s birthday in a beaten-up car Harry manages to acquire.
Elsewhere, on a secluded island in Norway, the enigmatic Dr. Halvorson (Guy Pearce) runs a remote commune called Sanctum. The site houses three women, who can all shapeshift. Dr Halvorson implements a strict set of rules on the women, as he tries to help them suppress and control their powers, while also running experiments on each of them. But are his intentions genuinely good-natured or possibly exploitative?
Things take an otherworldly twist when a bearded representative of Sanctum, Steinar (Jóhannes Hauker Jóhannesson), attempts to kidnap June and claims he can reunite her with her long-absent mother. June undergoes her first “shift” as she takes on the gruff form of Steiner. Harry is understandably bewildered by the transformation, but fortunately June is able to confirm her identity as her reflection remains her own figure. June soon discovers that she can shift into the form of any nearby person, leaving that individual in a comatose state until she changes back. Her lack of control over this ability leads her to involuntarily take several people’s forms, placing strain on her relationship with Harry. It’s not long before one of her shifts is caught on camera and her secret threatens to be exposed.
Despite being only eight episodes long, The Innocents still falls victim to the infamous Netflix bloat. The first two episodes are well-paced, with the lovers coming to terms with June’s first shift and heading towards London. But the succeeding four episodes, which basically see Harry and June evading multiple pursuing groups, do very little to advance the story. You could quite easily lose two of these episodes without sacrificing any important plot points. We see June shift several more times and the danger of this power is reinforced repeatedly, but the true nature and extent of her abilities remain frustratingly opaque. The pacing eventually picks up in the final two episodes, when the loaded supernatural concept finally begins to be defined and the mind-altering potential of the shifts are revealed. The season ends on a high note with a thrilling, provocative conclusion, which, now the show’s world has been established, provides a solid base for a more ambitious second season.
Series directors Farren Blackburn and Jamie Donoughue compose a shadowy, muted visual tone, which, along with Carly Paradis’ moody score, brings an uneasy tension to proceedings. They make good use of the Sanctum’s Scandinavian location, with some gorgeous sweeping shots of the stunningly pristine Norwegian landscape. The directorial pair also adeptly capture the season’s transformations through nifty camera tricks, mirror reflections and presaging seizures. These shifts could easily appear unnatural and even unintentionally funny, but the secondary cast members tasked with portraying the shapeshifted June all put in entirely convincing turns – especially Jóhannesson, whose burly exterior couldn’t be further from that of a teenage girl’s, yet you utterly believe that June is inhabiting his form.
The Innocents undoubtedly suffers from pacing issues and its unabashed sentimentality will put off more cynical viewers. Nevertheless, it’s a skilfully directed, well acted slice of supernatural teen drama with a gripping ending that teases a potentially more dynamic second season.
The Innocents is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photos: Aimee Spinks / Netflix