Everyone and their book club seems to have read All the Light We Cannot See, the historical novel by Anthony Doerr. It sat on the New York Times bestseller list for over 200 weeks, has sold around 15 million copies, and took home a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Its appeal is evident: a wartime novel with a fable-like quality, a mystery tale at its heart, and a hopeful focus on the power of goodness above all, even in the bleakest of circumstances. In translating the hefty book to TV, Netflix is clearly hoping to gain some of that sweet critical clout for itself. It’s unlikely. The adaptation we have is mostly medicore, although it takes the time to swerve into outright bad when the occasion calls for it.
Marie-Laure (played by newcomer Aria Mia Loberti) is a blind French teenager living in the coastal town of Saint-Malo during the Second World War. The Nazis have locked the starving residents in, leaving them unable to escape as the American bombs drop from overhead. Marie-Laure uses her radio to send signals to her father (Mark Ruffalo, who has made a Choice with his accent) and do her bit for the resistance. Also in Saint-Malo is Werner Pfenning (Louis Hofmann), a young German soldier forced into Nazi service thanks to his incredible technical skills. He finds much hope in Marie-Laure’s broadcasts, even though he has been tasked with eradicating all enemy transmissions.
A lot of great novels simply don’t make for good films. There’s a solid track record of Pulitzer honourees being turned into terrible adaptations (see The Goldfinch and A Thousand Acres for proof.) I haven’t read Doerr’s book so I can’t attest to this series’ fidelity as an adaptation, but what Netflix let us see at TIFF (the first two episodes of a four-part miniseries) makes you wonder if the book is secretly bad. Well, that or the people responsible for this take just entirely missed the point. I’m tempted to go with the latter. With Shawn Levy on directorial duties and Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight dealing with the screenplay, any subtleties or quietness are stamped out in favour of belching out all of the subtext as pure text. The characters are constantly talking about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. The only reprieve from this comes when they hammer home the big message about the light and holding onto it in the darkness. Take a drink every time they talk about this and you’ll have the quickest route to a blackout this side of Spring Break. It’s all so thuddingly delivered, and not even the best actors can do much with it.
Aria Mia Loberti is charming and does good work with a character that has been flattened into a smart disabled girl stereotype. But at least she’s given more to do than Louis Hofmann, who you may recognize from Dark. Werner is the ‘good Nazi’, the one whose killings of other people are downplayed heavily so you can keep routing for the guy with the swastika on his uniform. He’s simply not compelling enough to hold our interest, although he’s hardly aided by such overwrought storytelling (I have to assume he has a stronger arc in the book, or at least more time spent developing his pivotal pre-war years.) Surely there would be some sense of moral conflict in doing a Nazi’s work while desperately trying to retain your moral integrity? By contrast, Lars Eidinger plays Reinhold von Rumpel, the evilest of the evil Nazis, a morphine-addicted dying man who seeks a diamond he believes can save him (just go with it.) At least he sinks his teeth into this token bad role, even if his portrayal seems more suited to an Indiana Jones flick than something this seemingly earnest.
Even if the Netflix logo didn’t play before the series, you’d know straight away that this comes to us courtesy of the streaming service because its visual style is identical to every other semi-prestige original show they’ve made. It’s the same dull cinematography with blasts of light to wake you up, the same overcompensating score (by the usually reliable James Newton Howard) to remind you when to cry, and the same opening credits that do way too much. When it’s not adhering to Netflix’s derivative demands, it’s busy aping from every war film ever. You could call ‘full house’ on your war movie cliché bingo card very quickly with this show.
Shawn Levy is a director best known for the Night at the Museum movies and a slew of broad comedies designed to appeal to as many people as possible. I see why a devoutly mainstream filmmaker would be seen as a good fit for a popular novel like this, but this is not a director of visual flair or thematic force. He’s on rails, taking the easy route even as the material cries out for a deft touch. It’s simple where it should be dense, schmaltzy rather than potent. The ultimate effect of this approach is to turn Nazi-occupied France and the slaughter of millions into a cutesy playground for Instagram post levels of inspiration. Was the book simply too weighty for Levy and Knight to dissect? Or did they think that viewers would be bored if the story took a breath and stopped for longer than a minute?
All the Light We Cannot See is half-baked, leaving behind scraps of potential but largely a hash of two-dimensional figures stuck in an interminable slog. Perhaps fans of the book will be satisfied to see the characters they love in the flesh, but I cannot imagine anyone being truly thrilled with something so blatantly made by people who didn’t know nor care to try harder with what they had. For novices to Doerr’s novel like myself, you won’t feel guilty skipping this.
All the Light We Cannot See screened its first two episodes at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere on Netflix on November 2.