24 Lies a Second: Morality Playground

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Morality Playground

Do foreign language releases end up getting better reviews, on the whole, than your standard Anglophone movies? And if so, why? Well, you could argue that there are fewer seats at the table for subtitled films, so to speak, and it's natural that only the cream of the crop will manage to rise to the top (I apologise for this metaphor, which seems to have got somewhat out of control on me). Or perhaps your serious critics are just prone to getting their heads turned by exotic foreign beasts.

Whatever the reason, earlier this year the Norwegian rom-com The Worst Person in the World got glowing notices from many critics. You would not expect, perhaps, the Norwegian sensibility to lend itself to frothy amatory misadventures, but it only goes to show the danger of believing in stereotypes. In any case, if you think that everything in Norway is dour and intense, Eskil Vogt's The Innocents (N-title: De uskyldige) has arrived to confirm you in all of your preconception, not to mention possibly freak you out really badly. Vogt was the co-writer on Worst Person in the World, too, and thus ended up with two films showing at Cannes in the same year: now that's just showing off.

The film opens with a young girl, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) moving into a new apartment building with her parents and sister – her sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic, and demands a lot of attention from their parents. The film is quite clear that Ida's response to this is an unthinking, petty viciousness; the first sign that this is not a film which will send you whistling from the auditorium.

The estate on which the girls now live is actually a really nice one, and their new apartment is also rather lovely – must be that Scandi genius for interior design, I suppose. The only downside is that they have arrived at the beginning of the summer holidays, and nearly everyone is away, leaving it deserted and rather eerie. While out playing, Ida makes friends with another resident, a young lad named Benjamin (Sam Ashraf). Benjamin casually shows her a trick he's somehow learned how to do – she drops a discarded bottle-cap, which rather than falling straight to the ground whizzes off at an angle. Meanwhile, another girl on the estate, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), discovers she has a strange connection with Anna – she can understand what the other girl is thinking, and even has a kind of clairvoyance where she is concerned.

It's all very underplayed and a bit Stephen King, in an austere sort of way: there's never any hint of an explanation as to why this particular group of children should have developed what are essentially psychic powers, it's just essential to the premise of the film. Vogt treats it very casually and matter-of-factly, and yet at the same time something undeniably and horribly ominous is bubbling under the surface.

The children continue to play together as their powers burgeon, and Anna begins to make a seemingly-miraculous recovery from her condition, astonishing her parents. But these are still very young children, not yet possessing the maturity or self-control to understand the consequences of their actions. This is not an idealised depiction of childhood – Benjamin and Ida both have a penchant for cruelty, often against animals, which certainly earns this film a strong trigger warning for anyone troubled by such things. And when the children fall out, the consequences for them and the other people on the estate border on the nightmarish...

For the most part – there are a handful of really nasty moments –   The Innocents is rather restrained, resembling some kind of social-realist drama more than anything else. And yet while watching it, I was most strongly reminded of some of the early horror movies made by David Cronenberg – the relentless pursuit of its theme, and the cool, detached attitude of the direction. It's this, perhaps, which makes the film so tense and uncomfortable to watch. Nothing is sugar-coated, and the gaze of the camera is seldom diverted.

It soon becomes apparent that the title of the film is ironic, or at least not as straightforward as it first appears. Are the children really the innocents of the title? It depends. We are used to using innocent in the legal sense, which is to say not responsible for a particular crime or immoral act. But it seems to me that Vogt is suggesting another meaning: these children are innocent in the sense that they are not yet fully cognisant of the nature of good and evil. They are not yet truly moral agents as the film begins: they acquire that agency as the story unfolds, and they choose how to use their uncanny abilities.

In line with this notion, the film is notably non-judgmental even as the actions of the children become more extreme – one of them shows definite signs of going to the dark side – and what started out as a playground spat shows every indication of becoming a battle to the death. Where does someone's character come from? The film makes no very great innovation when it suggests that one should ultimately blame the parents – children who are given love and attention and discipline ultimately develop a sense of moral responsibility; those who are indulged and ignored become a hazard to themselves and others.

It's ultimately a rather conservative subtext for a movie, but it's a coherent one and it certainly doesn't feel trite or hackneyed in context. The rest of the film is quite unsettling and tense enough, anyway; I spent quite a lot of it hunched down in my seat with my fingers half over my eyes. This is mostly down to Vogt's script and direction, but the acting from the children is impeccable, with a really remarkable performance from Ramstad. This is both a slow-burning thriller and a proper horror movie, and a profoundly disturbing and unsettling one at that. But it's a horror movie dealing with serious ideas about childhood and morality, rather than rote scares and casual gore: fans of the more thoughtful end of the genre should certainly seek this film out, but everyone else might find it a bit too much to cope with.

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