The Innocents (2021)

Not the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, but a 2021 Norwegian film (De uskyldige), which I was drawn to for its bleakly realistic take on a theme I’ve written about in Mewsings before: psychic kids.

The Innocents focuses on Ida, a girl of about eight or nine, whose parents move to a new flat in the sort of complex of apartments I last saw on film in Let the Right One In (which would make an excellent Nordic-supernatural-kids double-bill with this film). Ida’s older sister Anna is profoundly autistic, so cut off from the world that she doesn’t respond when Ida viciously (and casually) pinches her leg. Ida befriends another loner at the apartment complex, Ben, a boy of her own age who shows off a skill he’s been practising: if Ida drops a bottle cap in front on him, he can fling it to the side with his mind. Ida’s impressed; Ben is equally impressed by Ida’s ability to bend her arms slightly backwards. He then shows her a cat he’s befriended, and suggests they take it up several flights of steps and drop it, to see what happens.


Amazingly enough, there’s another child with a mild psychic ability in the same apartment complex. The slightly-younger Aisha can hear some people’s thoughts and talk back to them with her mind. She can’t hear Ida (Ida has, it seems, no psychic ability), but can hear the autistic Anna. More crucially, Anna can hear her, even when they’re apart, and it’s through Aisha that Anna is encouraged to say her first words.

The kids realise their powers get stronger when they’re together. They of course use them to play games, with Ida whispering a word into Anna’s ear and Aisha or Ben “hearing” it the next floor up. But things start to take a darker turn with the already-troubled Ben. Bullied not just by the local older lads but also his own mother, Ben discovers he can make people do things. He gets revenge on a teenage boy who taunted him by controlling a much older man. Then he plays with getting his own back on his mother (who has clearly beaten him — we see unexplained bruises on his body), and, childlike, goes way too far, but perhaps doesn’t care, or can’t admit he does. The children’s powers are all meshed together, though, and an injury to one — or caused by one — can be felt or perceived by the others. Aisha doesn’t like what Ben’s doing, but Ben doesn’t like being told what to do. A confrontation is brewing.

The Innocents is clearly a world apart from that archetypal “psychic kids” film, Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). There, apart from some mild peril at the end, the film is mostly about what fun it would be to have psychic powers. Here, it’s about how dangerous psychic powers might be in kids who are neglected or ignored or mistreated enough that they can take a childish pleasure in inflicting pain, or in taking an instant and over-the-top retribution just because they can.

But The Innocents does have a more positive side. Though I’ve seen it described (bizarrely, I think) as a superhero film — presumably, just because there are “super powers” involved — what it most reminded me of was Theodore Sturgeon’s classic novel More Than Human (1953), in which a group of misfits who, individually, would be regarded as physically or mentally disabled, together meld into a super-powered example of the next step in human evolution, “homo gestalt”. In The Innocents, it’s through coming together that these kids’ powers develop.

Their powers aren’t explained at all. Ben’s having worked on the ability to fling bottle tops with his mind just seems to be the product of a lonely boy’s application, driven perhaps by a determination borne of a clearly unhappy home life. It’s the coming together of Ben, Aisha and Anna that flips things from flinging bottle tops to mind control and murder. But The Innocents gets past any accusation that this is a major coincidence — three kids with psychic powers, however mild, happening to come together in the same apartment complex — by a hint, at the end, that psychic abilities aren’t all that rare, they’re just usually too mild (or left un-amplified by isolation) to get noticed. (And presumably such abilities either die out in adulthood, or these kids are that tiny step forward in evolution, in the manner of mutants and Tomorrow People everywhere).

The Innocents does have some scenes which are really hard to watch (particularly involving the poor cat), but overall it’s a low-key, even muted film, with a lot of quiet but meaningful moments that build the tension — which is as much emotional as supernatural, particularly when it comes to seeing how far Ida will side with the increasingly vindictive Ben. Not a casual watch at all, nor perhaps as affecting as Let the Right One In, but a worthwhile slice of subtle Nordic supernatural.


Seaward by Susan Cooper

1985 Puffin PB, art by Steve Braund

Published in 1983, this was Susan Cooper’s first novel since finishing her Dark is Rising sequence with Silver on the Tree in 1977. Like those books, Seaward is a fantasy for young adults, though in this case a standalone one.

Two youngsters, separately, find their way into another world. The boy Westerley, whose home nation isn’t identified, though it’s evidently on the totalitarian spectrum, is told by his mother how to escape to this other world the moment before she’s shot by a political branch of the country’s police. He knows his father is by the sea and, thinking himself pursued even in this other world, heads towards it. The girl Cally (full name Calliope) has recently found herself alone after first her father then her mother are taken away to some place by the sea for a cure for a muscular disease — or, more likely, care before they die. Drawn by a music she vaguely recognises, Cally enters a mirror in her parents’ room and finds herself in this strange land. Like Westerley, she decides to head for the coast, where she believes she can reunite with her parents.

The world they’re now in is ruled by two beings — or, perhaps, ruled by one, who’s tempered by the other. There’s the blue-robed, white-blonde Lady Taranis, kind one moment, cruel the next, and the gold-cloaked, owl-eyed Lugan, who is much more of a helper to the two kids, though only at times:

“Sometimes I may intervene. Not always. There are perils in this country, but there are also laws—and while you journey here, I watch that neither you nor anyone else break those laws.”

1983 Bodley Head HB, art by Joseph A Smith

There’s something of an Alice in Wonderland feel to the fantasy in this book. Not only does Cally enter the world through a mirror, but Westerley’s first adventure is to find himself part of a chess game, played by unwitting squares of soldiers on a wide, flat plain. But this isn’t a nonsense fantasy, nor is it meant to be taken lightly. The whole point is that the perils Cally and Westerley face — at first alone, but soon together — are life-threatening, or at least potential prisons. This book is closer to, say, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold or Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, in that it’s about a lonely boy and a lonely girl meeting in another world and, through facing its perils together, forging a relationship that allows them to return to our world and face it with a renewed hope and strength. (Though I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as either of those.)

And that theme, I think, would have been the thing I’d have responded to had I read it first as an adolescent, but as I’m reading it for the first time now, many years later, I was more bothered by the lack of solidity to the story. Lugan may mention laws, but his use of the passive voice (“there are also laws”) means we’re not going to told what they are, and his pronouncement that he “may intervene” sounds more like a writer letting the reader know that random interventions may occur, but they’re not going to tell you when. Cally and Westerley’s adventures are full of invention, but have none of the sort of logic that can allow the reader to really take part in the tale (anticipating what will happen, working out what they would do in the characters’ place). Most of the time, the pair are rescued from peril by some magic helper or gift that just works at the right moment: a magical wind to take them away, the help of birds, a friendly giant snake, a friendly giant insect. As Colin Manlove says of Seaward in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England:

“Though the book’s settings are finely imagined, they are not suggestive of meaning, but are there simply as fantastic inventions to give an exotic and exciting air to the plot.”

1987 PB, art by David Wiesner

In a sense, to use Tolkien’s word, the book is a series of eucatastrophes — last-minute miraculous rescues from certain peril — but used so often they soon lose their fairy tale element of genuine magic and just become frustrating. But the point of the book, I’d say, isn’t the story, but the way these perils bind the boy and girl together, teach them to trust one another and form a new bond of a type they’d only previously had with their parents.

Manlove’s other criticism of the book, I don’t quite agree with:

“Part of the trouble is that the book is non-moral: enjoyment of life is the only notion of good, hating it the bad.”

But I think this is to be too harsh on a novel that’s basically about overcoming grief and loss, and the fear of growing up in a world which can so easily take away what is most valuable, in human terms. As Charles Butler says in Four British Fantasists (a study of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper and Dianne Wynne Jones — four writers who happened to be at Oxford when Tolkien was lecturing there):

“One of the book’s main themes is that the two rulers of the secondary world, Lugan and Taranis, are not moral opposites, even though they at first appear to be so, with Lugan protecting the children and Taranis attempting to bar their escape. Ultimately, they are brother and sister, life and death: each of them has both a kindly and a cruel aspect.”

2013 PB cover, which makes use of a single (very brief) appearance of a dragon to sell this as the sort of fantasy it isn’t

“Nothing is black and white, Westerly, in this long game we play,” Lugan says at an early point, which isn’t, I don’t think, a moral point, but one about learning to accept the apparently bad things as part of a life that will inevitably contain both the bad and the good, as well as many things in between. It’s a novel about learning to balance the threat of/fear of death and loss, and the other negative aspects of life, with at least the possibility of the positive (here, the promise of love as a balance to loss).

Ultimately, Seaward is a coming of age tale, taking both characters to the point where they must decide to return to the real world, with all its losses, perils, and difficulties, in order to either mature into a full life, or escape from harsh reality and remain children forever. As I say, it’s not, I don’t think, the sort of YA book that can be read for the first time as an adult — something I’d say is also true of Cooper’s Dark is Rising books, which also have too much passive-voice fantasy (“this must be”, and so on) for my full enjoyment. But, they’re not written for me, at least not the non-adolescent me I am now.