The Innocents review – confessions of a teenage shapeshifter

This po-faced fantasy eight-parter about teens in love – More Twilight than Let the Right One In – wallows in yearning but goes nowhere

Uh-oh. Your daughter is turning 16. What if she rejects you and rebels? What if she and her secret boyfriend run away from verdant Yorkshire to That London, with no plan? What if she morphs into a burly, bearded Norwegian?

Shapeshifting is the supernatural gubbins powering The Innocents, Netflix’s new eight-part big mood of a drama. Teenage sweethearts June and Harry (Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascott) find their dash for freedom complicated by June’s developing tendency to go glassy-eyed and assume the form of the next person she touches. Around London they stumble, meeting – and in June’s case, becoming – new people, pursued by their frantic parents and two Nordic henchmen who want to take June to the fjords, where a suspiciously calm psychologist (Guy Pearce) runs a commune for “shifters”. Can their love survive?

Fantasy-drama is a proven way to intensify young romance, and The Innocents’ leads maintain the requisite tone of desperate solemnity. You want their impossible dream of only ever needing one another to come true, because the performers convincingly sell the idea that, of all the powerful and potentially messy forces being unleashed here, love is the most potent. But unless you’re happy just to wallow in yearning, the show’s failure to go any deeper makes it a po-faced slog. It is less Let the Right One In and more Twilight.

Guy Pearce and Ingunn Beate Oyen in The Innocents
Supernatural gubbins … Guy Pearce and Ingunn Beate Øyen explain the science bit in The Innocents. Photograph: Richard Hanson/Netflix

Shapeshifting is variously used as a vague metaphor for suppressed childhood trauma, sisterhood (the shifters are all female), and the difficulty of empathising with each other because of the identities we all construct to conceal our real selves. But the script is too busy taking its own premise seriously to hit any of its targets, or to create any affecting mini-dramas based on the lives June borrows. And the scenes at the Norwegian shifter refuge don’t add much except a final destination for the plot and a veneer of Scandi-noir wilderness brooding, to go with a soundtrack full of that keening acoustic indie-pop (Foals, Phoebe Bridgers, Phantogram, Foreign Fields) that sounds a bit like the theme from The Bridge.

A subplot about the mardy history of Yorkshire shapeshifting, in which young Harry’s mother (Nadine Marshall, much too good for her role) is conveniently a police officer with a personal connection to a cold case that is revived by June’s metamorphoses, feels like an attempt to span extra genres by a show that isn’t confident enough to deeply mine its own. In the end, it’s mostly just about what it’s like to be a shapeshifter, and who really cares about that?

The kids’ flight to the capital is also dogged by TV-drama cliches and fogeyish bum notes, including a classic unconvincing-nightclub scene, the obligatory character who is toxically listless in their zone one penthouse flat, and a bit when millennials dance gaily to the Flying Burrito Brothers. One plot turn relies on young people not only reading but heeding a comment left beneath a YouTube video. When even the plausible parts of the story are implausible, it’s hard to get away with the silly stuff, and hilarious bathos sets in as the attempt to insert magical elements into a realistic contemporary setting comes apart. When the excellent Ascott is forced to gaze moodily at the floor and deliver the line “I just don’t understand what’s happening – or why it’s happening”, it is clearly a cry for help. The Innocents’ creators haven’t really understood why any of this is happening, either.


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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