Tonight Mr Metawitches and I spent the evening binge watching episodes 1-5 of Netflix’s new supernatural teen romance, The Innocents. Y’all don’t know him as well as you know me, but believe me when I say that the fact that he stayed awake through 5 straight episodes (of any show) is a massive complement!
The Innocents follows June and Harry, 2 British 16 year olds who have decided to run away from home, rather than continue to live with their parents’ oppression. June’s (Sorcha Groundsell) father is moving her to a remote, isolated island that probably doesn’t even have internet and Harry’s (Percelle Ascott) father is severely disabled, requiring constant caregiving. His mother, Christine (Nadine Marshall) expects him to pitch in when she’s busy. Since she’s a cop, she’s very busy.
At the start of the series, they’ve kept their romance a secret from everyone but June’s agoraphobic brother, Ryan (Arthur Hughes), who lives semi-independently in the garage. Ryan is also physically disabled and devoted to his sister. He brings moments of charm, silliness and outright comedy to the series.
The secrecy means that June and Harry really are innocents, as the title suggests. They communicate by secret love letters (handwritten on paper!) instead of by texts, and haven’t gone any further than kissing. June’s stepfather, John McDaniel (Sam Hazeldine) has always been strict and overprotective with the two children. Harry’s been kept busy with responsibilities at home, and has a strong moral compass.
A big part of the fun of this show is watching these two innocents venture out into the world. Once the show is past its initial introductory phase, the kids move from adventure to adventure, whether it’s seeing each other without shirts on for the first time or outrunning kidnappers in a car chase. Harry and June are on their own, with only passing outside guidance. They have to figure things out together as they go along.
The couple’s devotion and commitment to each other are a breath of fresh air after two decades of romantic cynicism being the popular style. But Harry and June aren’t an overly sweet, perfect couple. They are normal kids who work hard to figure things out together and to put their relationship first. They aren’t afraid to confess their love for each other in terms that wouldn’t be out of place on a greeting card.
Their sincerity works because they are islands of it in the middle of the jaded city, where no one can be trusted and everyone is working an angle, looking for a way to exploit them. The kids also come from good homes, but there are issues in both homes, making them realistically flawed.
Then there is the Norwegian side of the story, which takes place at Sanctum, the live-in shifter clinic run by Guy Pearce’s Dr Halvorson and his muscle, Steinar (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Halvorson has three shapeshifters living with him already, all women, including June’s mother, Elena (Laura Birn). He’d like to add June to his collection. Under the guise of helping her learn to control these amazing powers, of course.
Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascotte are both charismatic and engaging as determined but confused teens who are thrown into a whole new world. They have all the chemistry you could ask for, which especially comes through in their physicality. The show doesn’t do graphic sex scenes or dwell on nudity. It leaves it up to the actors to convey the emotions of sharing each level of “first” together. But beyond that, they come across as a team, always gravitating toward each other and physically sheltering each other. To me, the iconic image for this show will always be the two of them, running from someone and holding hands.
Guy Pearce is delightfully multi-faceted as Halvorson. We slowly unpeel his layers over the course of the season as the character’s true talents and motivations are revealed. The role gives Pearce an understated but complex psychologist to sink his teeth into, the kind of role he does exceptionally well.
Laura Birn (Elena, June’s mother), Ingunn Beate Øyen (Runa, Halvorson’s wife) and Lise Risom Olsen (Sigrid, shapeshifter patient at Sanctum) play Halvorson’s harem of blonde Norwegian shapeshifters who are in treatment at his remote clinic, Sanctum. All 3 are unstable and potentially dangerous, but are working with Halvorson to control their shifts. All three must compete for Halvorson’s attention, leading to jealousy and resentment among them. The three actresses make each character an individual and give us a sense of how the shifters have struggled. They give subtle performances which match Pearce’s, but then occasionally take their characters off the rails when each woman’s instability is triggered. The quiet which gives way to explosions makes for powerful performances from all three.
Like June’s brother, Ryan, Steinar is a supporting character who’s used for a variety of functions in the show. Sometimes he’s the scary monster; sometimes he’s the comic relief; sometimes he’s charged with exposition or backstory. He switches bodies with more than one shapeshifter, meaning Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson has to play three different characters in the pilot alone. The three leads of this show are rightfully getting major attention, but Jóhannesson and Arthur Hughes (Ryan) are the unsung heroes who bring heart and versatility to The Innocents.
Outside of Norway, the other two major locales are London and the British small towns/countryside outside of London. But Norway is the star, with panoramic shots of the fjords and picturesque views of meadows and farm houses. Urban life in London is also shown off with glitzy, sparkling scenes.
The shapeshifter aspect allows the show to tackle some interesting issues, the largest one being the complexities of consent and exploitation. June and Harry are the most naive members of the cast, but issues of truth vs lies, consent vs force, permission vs theft, exploitation vs informed agreement, and the ubiquity of temptation arise constantly for the cast to face.
The shapeshifters are all women, which allows for shifting to serve as a metaphor for being female. Women and shifters change their physical states at various intervals and points throughout their lives, unlike men. The shifters are held back in society because they shift. It’s seen as a handicap, even an illness, much like the way women’s normal bodily processes have been medicalized into illnesses in certain cultures and times. The men in these women’s lives react strongly to their inability to control their women’s shifting, retaliating with actions as typical and varied as throwing the women out of the home and enticing the women into an isolated cult.
The show does have a few pacing issues early on, most particularly in episode 2. But it quickly gets past those and keeps the kids and the story moving.
Overall, I found The Innocents to be an enjoyable show that I plan to finish bingeing tomorrow night. It’s easy to watch and enjoy as a popcorn supernatural romance adventure show, but there are larger issues that the viewer can choose to engage with. The cinematography makes watching for the visuals alone worthwhile. The straightforward sincerity of the writing is very welcome, especially since it’s layered with more sophisticated points of view.
Image courtesy of Netflix.