Daring, confronting horror story is one of the best films of 2022

The Innocents ★★★★½
MA15+, 117 minutes

If you take the name of a classic film, you may suffer by comparison. In this case, that should not happen: The Innocents is one of the best films of the year so far.

The classic was a black and white British horror film from 1961, based on Henry James’s novel The Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr was a governess terrorised by the two sadistic children. This new Norwegian film has no governess, but there are four children with strange powers who terrorise each other. Norwegian-born, Paris-trained writer-director Eskil Vogt does not acknowledge a connection to the 1961 film, which is probably sensible. Best not to invite any unpleasantness over rights.

It may be true that Vogt came up with the idea independently. It is different enough to seem possible. However it happened, whatever its origins, the film is a cracker: a slow-burn interior drama about the secret lives of children with just the right amount of exaggeration to take us into the realm of horror without the usual genre tricks.

Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum) is nine and a somewhat lonely child made more isolated by the move to a sparkling new high-rise neighbourhood next to a forest. Her older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), has regressive autism. She has lost the power to speak or communicate. In the playground, the two sisters meet a mixed-race African girl named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who says she can hear other people’s thoughts. Aisha finds she can communicate with Anna. Through her, Anna begins to speak again.

The fourth child is a boy called Benjamin (Sam Ashraf), a loner and outcast who may have been victimised because of mixed race. Ben and Ida initially bond when he shows her he can move small objects with his mind. Ben has an unformed moral sense and a rage that makes him dangerous.

Vogt makes this credible by keeping the camera low and close, making us part of the fantasy reality of this tight little group. As things escalate, it feels completely natural and organic. They believe it, so we believe it.

This wide plane of story has much to explore: the way kids form a moral code, the difference between good and bad, the way that fear can take over a child’s life. The film offers multiple interpretations, each of which keeps widening. Is it a film about bullying or alienation, or about the extraordinarily powerful emotions of childhood, the things that are often kept secret from parents? There is room to choose. The story is daring, shocking and at times confronting in its violence. It may be about childhood but don’t make the mistake of taking your own to see it.

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