Having already streamed the nihilistic The End of the F***ing World earlier this year, it appears Netflix can’t get enough of stories of runaway teens in love, peppered with a genre twist. Another one on the agenda is The Innocents, directed alternately by Farren Blackburn (Daredevil, Iron Fist) and Jamie Donoughue (The Last Kingdom).
Created by Hania Elkington and Simon Duric, the show is – as mentioned above – ostensibly about two teen sweethearts running away to start a new life together. June (Sorcha Groundsell, Clique) and Harry (Percelle Ascott, Wizards vs Aliens) have kept their love for each other secret from most of the world. The only person who knows is June’s bother, Ryan (Arthur Hughes), and he is more than happy to help her escape her life if it means being able to stay away from their oppressive father, John (Sam Hazeldine, Peaky Blinders). And so, on the morning of June’s 16th birthday, the couple elope in a clapped-out car and onto better times.
Elsewhere, a man by the name of Halvorson (Guy Pearce) is running what appears to be a retreat for women. Halvorson and the women, including his own wife, live a basic existence punctuated by his own scientific experiments. The disparate narratives dovetail when Halvorson’s right-hand man, Steinar (Jóhannes Hauker Jóhannesson), is dispatched to collect June and bring her to his retreat.
If things are already sounding complicated, The Innocents reveals that June and Halvorson’s ‘patients’ all suffer from a condition that causes them to shapeshift into the first person that touches them during moments of intense emotion.
Only the first four episodes of The Innocents were available to review at the time, but it feels like a gothic melodrama that just happens to be set in the modern day. At least, it does when the trauma of shape-shifting raises its head. Over the course of only a few days, Harry can only watch in horror as his beloved turns into a shapely drug dealer, a pregnant nurse and even the aforementioned Steinar. Unfortunately, whilst there feels like there’s a lot thematically that you dig through – June’s shape-shifting powers can be seen as a stand in for numerous changes a 16-year-old girl will go through, for example – The Innocents doesn’t bear any substantial fruit by the half-way mark.
Instead, the show quickly becomes formulaic in its structure with June shapeshifting and the couple arguing about what this means for their relationship, before Plot B – Steinar’s attempts at kidnapping – interrupts. Things are not helped by a deliberately cool pacing that doesn’t earn how slow it is. Intrigue is there, but it’s clouded by some narrative dead weight. Queer as Folk and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies once said, ‘I would rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 5 seconds,’ but it does feel like The Innocents maybe taking the biscuits. Luckily, things quickly heat up in the fourth episode. So, there’s hope that it can maintain the momentum for the season second half.
That aside, The Innocents does boast some excellent performances. Whilst it’s hard to get a grip on what Pearce is aiming for with Halverson, others on screen certainly make the most of their screen time. In particular, Jóhannesson does a surprising amount of heavy lifting as a man spiralling quickly down the plughole since meeting Halvorson. Additionally, Steinar appears to have drawn the short straw in shapeshifting terms, with more than one person assuming his identity. This inevitably leads to Jóhannesson having to take on numerous personalities and he does so with a nuance that heightens every scene he’s in.
Of course, I’ve hidden some of the series’ more juicier plot twists and have done so with a notion that, despite concerns about its pacing and playing its cards to close to its chest, The Innocents is an engaging enough drama for those who appreciate a splash of magic realism mixed in with their teen romance.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★☆☆
‘The Innocents’ will be hitting Netflix on August 24.