During one of the many flashbacks in “All the Light We Cannot See,” Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti) sits with her great-uncle, Etienne (Hugh Laurie), as the aging Frenchman casts a line into the English Channel. Their fishing expedition is both a ploy and, well, a fishing expedition: They’re trawling for intelligence, not dinner, as Etienne describes the new boats docked nearby to his blind grandniece, who dutifully writes down whatever she’s told. Later, their reports will be shared with the Allies over the radio, but only if their cover, the fishing pole, masks their more critical tool: the typewriter. Nazi troops have taken over the small French town of Saint-Malo, and a cadre of Germans soon stumble upon their two-person operation. As an inquisitive officer demands answers from Marie, Etienne reaches into his tackle box for a makeshift weapon. If they don’t buy her story, he knows what must be done.
But they do, and he doesn’t have to. Marie picks up her scrap of paper, covered in braille, and pretends to read to the officers — successfully persuading them of her innocence by quoting Jules Verne. Once the intruders have retreated, Etienne says to Marie, “Sometimes it frightens me how good you are at this.”
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Marie is good, in part because she’s so detail-oriented. When the men approach, she knows they’re soldiers by the sound their metal-tipped boots make on the rocks. She tells her great-uncle and the two are able to conceal their espionage, protect themselves, and share what they’ve learned to help win the war. Marie has been blind since she was six years old, and she was raised by her father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), to know her surroundings with meticulous precision. Combined with her loyalty and sound morals, she’s not only survived Nazi occupation but become an asset to her country. She’s a remarkable person, yet she’s stuck in a limited series uninterested in her way of life. “All the Light We Cannot See” idolizes Marie, cheering her on and staring in wonder at what she can accomplish, but it discards her detail-oriented approach to living like a clueless Nazi staring at a bumpy sheet of paper.
Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Steven Knight, the Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller trades in its central character’s astute, compelling perspective for a treacly, conventional war story that’s far too plain to discern from similar tales, better told. And it’s in the telling that the series fails most thoroughly.
Take Marie’s attentive ear for Nazi boots; it’s clear from Laurie’s stuttered movements that Etienne was caught off-guard by the approaching soldiers, but it’s only implied that Marie’s keen observation makes a difference. What’s seen (aka what actually happens) undermines her efforts. The Nazis are already moving into frame when she speaks, and they’re upon them before significant preparations can be made. Even the typewriter she tucks beneath her dress is found, rendering her alert hearing all but moot. Then, when she needs to lie, her explanation is so casual, her effort so minimal, and the Nazis’ inquisitiveness so easily calmed, it all but makes Etienne’s impressed claim — that she’s so good at this — an eye-rolling reach.
“All the Light You Cannot See” is filled with such well-intentioned ideas, poorly executed (though to share more now would traverse into spoiler territory). Following the novel’s time-hopping structure, the four-hour Netflix original is primarily rooted in the 1944 siege of Saint-Malo, near the war’s end. There, Marie is broadcasting a radio signal from an undisclosed location, hoping to hear from Etienne, who’s been gone for days, and her father, who’s been gone for more than a year. In between her personal messages, she reads Jules Verne’s “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” — a coded transmission to the American army that’s soon picked up by Nazi soldiers.
Luckily, the first enemy to hear her voice is the elusive, some would say nonexistent, Good Nazi; a young German man named Werner (Louis Hofmann) whose love for the radio dates back to his time in an orphanage, when he heard a man called The Professor share stories and scientific facts. Despite being outlawed by the Third Reich, Werner listened as often as he could, and now he hears a young woman speaking on the same frequency, sharing similar knowledge, at even greater peril. Werner — again, being the good apple among troops of genocidal ones — decides he must not only find this benevolent broadcaster, but also protect her, no matter the cost.
Using Werner and Marie as guideposts, “All the Light You Cannot See” dives back and forth through time, steadily divulging their upbringings — her with a lovely, soft-voiced father who works in Paris’ Museum of Natural History, and he in a German training camp for Hitler Youth, after being ripped from his loving sister’s arms. Peculiarly, incongruously, maddeningly (and unlike my understanding of the book), Knight and Levy try to paint their dual protagonists with equal integrity. She’s a natural student eager to make her magnanimous papa proud, and he’s, well, he’s a Nazi, but he didn’t want to be a Nazi and he doesn’t like being a Nazi and surely that’s enough to make up for whatever atrocities he went along with to survive while serving as a Nazi throughout World War II. (Their parallel tracks prove even more baffling in an ending so unearned it’s both a betrayal to one character and laughable to all.)
Making it all the easier to see Werner as not quite a real Nazi are the other capital-E Evil Nazis who surround him. There’s the cursing, screaming, let’s-stop-just-shy-of-calling-him-a-pedophile Nazi, who “examines” Werner to make sure he’s not secretly Jewish; there’s the Nazi General who threatens to kill a teenage Werner if he can’t fix his girlfriend’s radio (but isn’t really so bad because he pauses, ever so briefly, before letting the Bad Doctor commence his examination); and then there’s the Rogue Nazi, formally known as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel (played by Lars Eidinger, and yes, that’s the character’s actual name), who gets almost as much screen time as Werner and Marie, all for his laughable quest to find a mysterious diamond that he believes will cure his “very serious condition.” Daniel, in his role at the museum, hides the jewel before the Nazis can raid Paris, and now ol’ Rumpel Sickenstein needs to find it if he hopes to live longer than his fuhrer.
No matter your tolerance for clichéd characters, the cast — all using different accents, none attuned to their role’s nationality — do manage to smooth over some of the story’s bumpy spots. Loberti is graceful and affecting as Marie, embodying the lead’s righteous sense of purpose while allowing for a child’s (or any human’s, really) raw fear to creep in during grave moments. Ruffalo effortlessly channels David’s good dad vibes, the soft lilt in his voice never really sounding French, but serving his endearing character nonetheless. Hofmann isn’t to blame for Werner’s smooth-brained heroification, committing to the scared-yet-determined Nazi rebel as well as one could hope. And Hugh Laurie remains a treasure, excavating considerable pathos without giving up Etienne’s backbone.
For fans of period melodramas set between bombings and battles, “All the Light You Cannot See” will check the box. It’s speedy, tear-jerking, and handsome enough (capturing France via sunshiney days and candlelit nights, coastal vistas and piles of rubble). Still, applying any amount of scrutiny exposes the insincerity and contradictions within. There’s clearly a far better version waiting to be captured — that much can be gleaned whether you’ve read the book or not — but Netflix, Levy, and/or Knight just didn’t put in the effort to find it. Marie would, though. She’d work every corner of this story for the particulars, purpose, and perspective missing here. She is good. This isn’t.
“All the Light We Cannot See” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 10. Netflix will release the limited series Thursday, November 2.
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