There are many familiar devices and tropes that link this series back to the sub-genre of YA Gothic horror: The fact that the main protagonists’ arousing appetite started at the age of 12 or 13 has connotations of puberty and sexual maturity, and their hunger and means of feeding through a kiss is almost caused by a lust and longing for both romantic and sexual desires. The theme of an absent mother is also present here, not just with both Sofie and Sebastian being abandoned by their mother, but also with Manor Headmaster Just having lost his wife and is left to raise his three daughters and keep them separate from the other students at his school (albeit unsuccessfully). Also, even though the common trope of repressed eroticism is littered throughout the series, at its core, it’s really about teenage angst and the notions of being sexually abstinent from those you desire.
All these things work in the series’ nature, and its core concept is what drives the series, even that’s not all what’s good about it. Visually, the series has a very artistic sensibility about it, but that visual style is also understated so that it doesn’t overshadow everything else. What makes the visuals striking though is in its lighting; it creates the perfect mood and atmosphere whilst the chiaroscuro monochrome colour palette is used effectively, like Sofie and Sebastian’s dark clothes contrasting with Just’s daughters’ white dresses or the bright exterior of Ottman Manor contrasting heavily with the dark interiors. Plus, the soundtrack’s song selection is well-utilised, especially the material by Roxy Jules and the theme song ‘Don’t Believe the Demons’.
The performances are solid all round with both Julie Zangenberg and Julie Christiansen standing out in particular. As Sofie, Zangenberg is mesmerising, giving a performance that is the perfect combination of sultry and wicked with raw vulnerability and emotion. She is truly electrifying, as is Julie Christiansen as Just’s daughter and Sofie’s lover, Emilie; Christiansen gives off a charismatic portrayal of a rebellious, love-struck teen, and her chemistry with Zangenberg is the most compelling part of the show. In fact, the way the show deals with this lesbian relationship is effective, believable, and both Zangenberg and Christiansen make us believe that Sofie and Emilie really want each other both physically and emotionally. Also, Sebastian Jessen is solid as... erm... Sebastian and gives it his very best, even if the series didn’t give his romantic story arc as much polish and care as Sofie’s.
This leads into some of the issues this series suffered from. Firstly, the love triangle between Sebastian, Nadja and Josefine felt incredibly drawn out and poorly developed. It almost descended into soap opera territory that kept switching back and forth, which feels irrelevant to a show of this calibre. Plus, the character of Nadja is just a plain misfire who always grinds the series to a halt whenever she shows up. Not that’s any fault at all to Frederikke Dahl Hansen, who does give a nuanced performance and does exactly what’s asked of her, but at times, Nadja became a bit insufferable, yet this is all down to the poorly contrived love triangle. Actually, there were quite a few contrivances here and there; For example, Emilie is deeply in love with Sofie, yet she suddenly voluntarily goes out with the creepy Pieter, who she doesn’t like and was all arranged by a dad she has been rebelling against throughout the series. Speaking of Pieter, the Prefects of the Manor weren’t compelling antagonists and weren’t given enough depth, other than the fact that they were sexist, misogynistic fascists for... reasons.
Despite its flaws, Heartless is an engaging piece of YA supernatural fiction that has a unique concept, rich thematic lore, striking visuals, and some compelling characters that are helped by strong performances. It’d be a shame if this was the only season that’s out there seeing as a second season is yet to be announced, but as it stands, this is a welcome antidote to the supernatural Gothic fairy tale subgenre, which had once been swamped down due to teenage-clichés.
HEARTLESS: SEASON 1 / CERT: 15 / DIRECTORS: NATASHA ARTHY, KASPAR MUNK / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: JULIE ZANGENBERG, SABASTIAN JESSEN, NICOLAI KOPERNIKUS, ALLAN HYDE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW