As doomed romances go, “Romeo & Juliet” is the pinnacle of young love, outsized emotions, and disastrous decision-making. What often falls by the wayside, however, is the part that the adults play in creating the conditions for the inevitable tragedy. Netflix’s “The Innocents” highlights this side of the conflict and how the central teenage lovebirds inherit the mess that their elders have made, often in the name of a horribly misguided love.
June (Sorcha Groundsell) leads a sheltered, claustrophobic existence thanks to her controlling dad John (Sam Hazeldine), who keeps her from having any sort of life outside of her classes and caring for her agoraphobic brother Ryan (Arthur Hughes). But on the eve of her 16th birthday — the day that John plans to move the family to a remote island even further removed from people — she and her secret boyfriend Harry (Percelle Ascott) run away together to London.
“The Innocents” revels in its emotions like a feline smearing itself in catnip. The righteousness of teenage rebellion and joy in sudden freedom are palpable and almost too earnest to bear. And so too is the horrified misery when the twist is revealed: June is a shapeshifter who takes on the form of the person who touches her when she’s triggered. Those meds that her father made her take weren’t for epilepsy, but to repress whatever emotion provokes the transformation. And keeping her under lock and key was for the good of others as well as herself.
Of course, the young lovers have no clue what is happening other than the fact that June is somehow inside the bearded Nordic man named Steinar (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) who had just tried to kidnap her earlier while they were on the road. The situation creates some incongruous visual moments as this rough-looking, hirsute fellow reacts like a scared, lovestruck teenager. But just as suddenly, June is herself again, and Steinar’s body wakes from its catatonic state.
Supernatural transformations have long been used to amplify the confusion of adolescent growing pains. “Teen Wolf” is the ultimate example of puberty run amok, with all of that unwanted hair sprouting out of the blue. On “The Innocents,” June’s unusual condition could represent her exploration of self and establishing her own identity. Without her jailor, the princess in the tower only has herself to blame for her actions.
June is not alone in her strange condition though, and over in Norway, Ben Halvorsen (Guy Pearce) leads a commune/laboratory called Sanctum in which he’s seeking a cure or at least treatment for the shifting. Serene, gorgeous shots of fjords create a tonal contrast to the unrelieving emotions of shapeshifters trying their best to control themselves: Everyone walks around wrapped in wooly sweaters as if to create a barrier to trap their problematic feelings.
Between London and Sanctum, the mechanism of shifting is explained to a certain extent. While it doesn’t really make much sense, it doesn’t really matter all that much either. What’s more important is the fact that shapeshifting is not a solitary act, and therefore, not one without moral and ethical consequences. This, of course, could be seen as an indictment of how people without the shapeshifting ability hurt themselves and each other. The cycle of trauma repeats as the secrets from Harry’s family, June’s parents, Sanctum, and a dormant police investigation are revealed.
Richard Hanson / Netflix
As it is, “The Innocents” is the very height of delicious, meaty melodrama that’s served up by stunning performances. Groundsell is like a luminous, tragic Tara Lipinski as she unwraps each appalling mystery, and yet holds every scene together. Pearce, presented initially as a mild-mannered professor, makes a meal of the last few episodes, chewing that Nordic scenery as if it were a tough day-old bagel. And Ingunn Beate Øyen as Runa is mesmerizing as she meets Pearce’s energy and turns it into heartbreaking calamity.
“The Innocents” is a chaotic yet entertaining ride, as the identity switcheroos have viewers playing voyeur to often inappropriate situations, keeping them guessing as to whose skin is being worn in each scene. It’s as messy as all of the emotions at play, and yet the eight episodes are densely packed with very little extraneous storytelling. At times, this lack of establishing a sense of place and motivation makes the series feel unmoored, but the action moves along rapidly all the way up to its last-minute sick twist.
”The Innocents” is currently streaming on Netflix. Check back for more coverage of “The Innocents” on IndieWire.