“All the Light We Cannot See” is not, in the strictest sense, a comfort watch. Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthony Doerr novel on which it’s based, the four-episode limited series takes place in a walled city under siege by a bombing campaign, its trapped civilians unable to evacuate — hardly a relaxing break from today’s headlines. But the Netflix show is, in a way, a return to simpler times.
This particular walled city is located in Nazi-occupied France, on the verge of American liberation in August 1944. As written, “All the Light We Cannot See” is already set amid a conflict that’s far closer to good versus evil than most armed struggles. (This is one explanation for the enduring popularity of World War II stories, even as the period slowly passes from living memory.) As adapted by screenwriter Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) and director Shawn Levy (“Stranger Things,” “Free Guy”), the series leans into sentiment and moral simplicity. Knight and Levy aim for an uplifting, inspirational tale of connection that transcends division, distance and prejudice, but instead deliver a flat, jumbled story that lacks the desired effect.
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Most of “All the Light We Cannot See” unfolds in the story’s present tense, as residents of the Bretonese town of Saint-Malo await the imminent arrival of American forces. Marie (Aria Mia Loberti), a young blind woman, sends illicit radio broadcasts from her attic; Werner (Louis Hofmann), a German soldier and radio tech, listens rapt until his superiors order him to track Marie down. But sporadic flashbacks tell us how each character found themselves in the seaside hamlet. Marie and her father Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), a locksmith at a museum, fled Paris to seek shelter with her great uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie) — and hide a potentially cursed diamond called the Sea of Flames that Daniel smuggled out of his workplace. Werner grew up in an orphanage, listening to scientific lectures on the same radio frequency where Marie now reads excerpts of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” His skill with radio earned Werner a place in an elite Nazi training school, separating him from his sister Jutta (Luna Wedler).
There’s a romantic tone to this story that borders on fairy tale-like fantasy, with Marie locked in an attic á la Rapunzel and a wicked jeweler-turned-Gestapo-officer (Lars Eidinger) on the hunt for a magical gem. “All the Light We Cannot See” can seem arbitrary in where it chooses to impose realism on this quasi-mythical story of two soulmates quite literally on the same wavelength. Both Loberti and Nell Sutton, the actor who plays Marie as a child, are visually impaired, a casting strategy Levy has championed for both “representation” and “authenticity.” Much of the series was also filmed on location in France. On the other hand, the dialogue is entirely in English; the French characters sound British, while the German ones have a noticeable accent while never actually speaking German (though they’re played by German actors). It’s a bizarre choice coming from Netflix, a platform that’s now synonymous with international hits that transcend borders and language barriers. An English-language show allows the participation of recognizable stars like Ruffalo and Laurie — but no “Squid Game” actor was widely known outside South Korea before that show became a record-breaking smash. A more comparable success might be “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Netflix’s German war film that became a major Oscar contender last year.
The confusion only compounds in how Knight has chosen to structure the story. To be fair, chronology is the greatest challenge in adapting “All the Light We Cannot See,” which hopscotches through time as Werner and Marie reflect on their lives in a moment of acute peril. Yet the show rushes some reveals before it’s had time to build up any suspense, and clumsily explains what it’s about to more effectively show. Etienne, for example, is traumatized by World War I and has spent decades holed up in his house, communicating with the outside world only through his radio. Before we even learn this, though, we’ve already seen him running around Saint-Malo as an agent of the French Resistance. This creates some tension around how the recluse got from Point A to Point B, but kills any catharsis when he finally resolves to go outside. For his part, Werner doesn’t just mention his harrowing time at school; he describes it in detail before several scenes set there make the description redundant.
A more substantial change is in how “All the Light We Cannot See” depicts, or doesn’t, the nuance of growing up in a fascist state. The symbolism of Marie’s condition is straightforward and left largely intact from the book: she’s both part of a population threatened by Nazi ideas of genetic purity and in tune with deeper truths than skin-deep appearance. But Werner has a more complex journey marked by moral, rather than physical, challenge. In Doerr’s telling, the German boy is conscious of the gains in quality of life the Nazi regime initially brought, and is excited to escape the coal mines of his hometown for a better opportunity. It’s only gradually, and through the access to other cultures and ideas the radio affords, that Werner unlearns the state propaganda he’s been steeped in for years.
On television, however, that inner evolution becomes external stasis. Werner is always pure and decent, while every Nazi adult he encounters is a menacing cartoon. (This evil, at least, is never banal.) “I have done bad things,” he admits as an adult, but we never witness any or hear them outlined in detail. Even Werner’s earliest brushes with the authorities happen under extreme duress; a Third Reich official demands he fix a radio at gunpoint, a successful effort that gets him shipped off to school. Because Werner isn’t under the Nazis’ sway to begin with, he never experiences an epiphany about the humanity of others — itself a cliché, but at least one that involves dynamic characters.
This doesn’t mean “All the Light We Cannot See” is wary of cliché elsewhere. Nazis “hate anyone who’s different,” Marie helpfully points out; “I will never give up hope,” another character vows. Such stirring rhetoric fails to make an impact. At four hours, “All the Light We Cannot See” is just barely longer than the feature film it nearly became when producer Scott Rudin first optioned the rights. A more extended story may have enriched its protagonists beyond figureheads for innocence, integrity or loving parenthood. In its current form, “All the Light We Cannot See” calls on viewers to acknowledge the complex humanity of others while failing to depict much itself.
All four episodes of “All the Light We Cannot See” will premiere on Netflix on Nov. 2.