The following is a spoiler-free review for all 8 episodes of The Innocents, which premieres Friday, September 24 on Netflix.
The Innocents, a YA romance with strange, grotesque, almost-X-Men like underpinnings, is an oddball blend of suffering and drama that picks up and gels as the season progresses. The story is immensely weird and off-putting at the get-go, but then I found myself, after crossing the halfway point, sucked into an over-arching mystery that had unfortunately obfuscated many of the initial beats early on.
The Innocents takes a ton of patience, but at only 8 episodes, it’s not long before viewers start being rewarded. The hook here is shapeshifting. Two teens in love in a dreary (or extra dreary) corner of England – Sorcha Groundsell’s June and Percelle Ascott’s Harry – decide to run off together, unaware that the strict and suffocating rules that June’s father forces her to adhere to are due to the fact she’s about to possibly exhibit the same supernatural abilities her mom possessed – the gift/curse of being able to transform into someone else.
Actually, “supernatural” is a stretch here because The Innocents really plays up the genetics of it all, and how shapeshifting is passed down through a (rare Scandinavian) female line, usually skipping a generation – making June a rare bird, indeed. And all the talk of genetics allows for more than few X-Men comparisons. Firstly, Guy Pearce, the biggest “name” in the cast, is a seemingly charitable researcher named Halvorson who runs a modest commune of three women on a secluded Scottish island. It’s very Charles Xavier. Why is the isle secluded? Well, because actually being able to control this mutant ability is harrowingly tricky affair.
Consider the powers of Rogue and Mystique, but combined. Not only does one transform into the person they physically touch during a triggered “episode,” but the person whose form one takes falls into a temporary (or, um, not) coma. Then, on top of assuming someone’s shape and voice, you’re also able to sift through their mind and memories. It’s a traumatizing experience that’s left those afflicted with serious emotional scars and rampant identity disorders. Halvorson’s mission is to help these women control their power and lead normal lives. Of course, when Harry and June run away, right on the cusp of her blossoming shifting, the power winds up cutting their honeymoon phase rather short because it’s an epically disturbing process.
Especially when June’s first big shift is into the body of a gigantic, bearded Norwegian man (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). It’s a loopy, creepy choice for an initial transformation, especially because it’s how Harry first finds out about June’s powers too. It’s a choice that EPs Hania Elkington and Simon Duric fully embrace and run with, but one that also might make the audience’s entry into the tale a bumpy one. Again, the first chapters of The Innocents can feel like a psychotic midway, where you have to sit through, and pay attention to, a ton of scenes where you only know about a quarter of what’s actually happening. It’s quickly frustrating, though the ride evens out once flashbacks start coming into play and everyone’s roles start becoming clearer.
Despite having to traverse more than a few trope-y on-the-run twists, Groundsell and Ascott always keep things fairly grounded and vital between June and Harry, providing the backbone for the series. The show isn’t necessarily a “teen romance,” not wholly, though that’s definitely a key component. There’s a lot more going on here too: June and Harry’s respective families – featuring players Nadine Marshall, Sam Hazeldine, and Arthur Hughes – weave their own riddles and mysteries while Halvorson’s Isle of Shifting Women contains its own nesting doll of intrigue.
It actually takes a while to break down Halvorson’s commune, and it stands out as the hardest nut to crack on the series. By the end though, once all histories are revealed, you realize you’ve been watching shadows on the wall and that most of the scenes on the island masked deeper, darker things. Lise Risom Olsen’s Sigrid, Ingunn Beate Øyen’s Runa, and Laura Birn’s Elena all feel flighty and brittle, but once the curtain drops and sinister claws begin to scratch away at the surface, The Innocents starts to feel fully formed. And Pearce, by the end, gives a truly haunting humanity to his mostly clinical presence.