The Innocents review – icily brilliant tale of kids with supernatural powers is future classic

·3 min read

A Norwegian housing estate becomes the village of the damned in this icily brilliant supernatural tale from film-maker Eskil Vogt, who as a screenwriter is known for his collaborations with Joachim Trier; rather amazingly, his movie before this brutal chiller was their co-scripted romantic comedy The Worst Person in the World. As for The Innocents, it might yet become a scary-movie classic: it greased my palms with anxiety and incidentally has some of the best child acting I have ever seen. See it now before Hollywood comes along and messes up your perception with a dodgy remake. (Having said which, Steven Spielberg or Brian De Palma might well have been interested in this script in their younger days, or maybe even now.)

Vogt places us in a pleasant, if featureless residential development in Romsås, Oslo, with 60s-style high-rise buildings near an artificial lake and picturesque woodland. Ida (played by newcomer Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is a moody nine-year-old who resents her mum and dad paying so much attention to her elder sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who is autistic. As the long hot summer drags on, Ida is left to play outside, and tasked with looking after Anna. But Ida leaves her sister alone on the swings one day while she goes off with a new friend: a boy called Ben (Sam Ashraf) who shows her a strange mental trick he can do, making a bottle cap fly through the air without touching it. He also has a nasty predilection for torturing animals.

Meanwhile, Anna strikes up a friendship with a girl called Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who has telepathic powers to match Ben’s telekinesis. Aisha starts silently communicating in her mind with Anna, who – to her parents’ overjoyed astonishment – is now able to speak, thanks to her new friend. But these superpowers, revealed as calmly and frankly as if in some social-realist drama, become forces for evil.

There is something compelling and even shocking about Ida’s first reaction to Ben’s bottle-cap trick: her sudden, fierce grin of pleasure and excitement. It is almost unearthly. These children are not innocent, and yet there is something pristine in their seclusion from adulthood; like the children in this film’s namesake from 1961, based on Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw, their world is a secret from the grownups. I also found myself thinking of English TV dramatist Dennis Potter.

With a story such as this, it is tempting to find it legible only as metaphor: to decide that Ida, Anna, Ben and Aisha’s existence is a parable for abuse, family dysfunction or racism (it is the two young people of colour who have the powers, at least initially.) Vogt’s script for Trier’s 2017 film Thelma, with its telekinesis theme, is obviously amenable to metaphorical readings. But perhaps this film’s force comes from the fact that there is no other level to find in it. They simply have these supernatural abilities, it is something to do with their being children, and that is all there is to it. The final “duel” scene, taking place in almost complete silence and under the nose of the notionally competent adults, is a masterpiece of sorts. The Innocents is a nightmare unfolding in cold, clear daylight.

• The Innocents is released on 20 May in cinemas and on digital platforms.

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