All the Light We Cannot See, a big budget, limited series adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel, is a maudlin, relentless tearing at the heartstrings delivered with maximum bombast. Instead of taking the subtle route in their adaptation, series director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Free Guy, Real Steel) and writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Locke, Serenity) turn All the Light We Cannot See from a mournful tragedy on the page and into an in-your-face wartime soap opera with more corn than a seasonal maze. It’s technically accomplished on one hand, but for those who like to take their historical melodramas with a tad bit of seriousness and tact, All the Light We Cannot See is a literally thunderous disappointment.
The year is 1944, and in the occupied French town of St. Melo, a young, blind woman named Marie (Aria Mia Loberti) is hiding out in the home of her uncle, Etienne (Hugh Laurie). Marie has been on the run from Paris ever since her father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), a museum curator, absconded with a priceless and supposedly cursed jewel so it didn’t end up in the hands of the Nazis. With her father on the run and uncle heavily embedded in the latter days of the war effort, Marie spends her evenings broadcasting personal messages to her father and coded passages from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Top ranking Nazi officials – most notably a psychopathic, medically ailing sergeant (a gleefully over-the-top Lars Eidinger) who wants the fabled Sea of Flames all to himself – are closing on on Marie’s location, but their efforts are stymied by a conflicted German radio operator named Werner (Louis Hofmann), an orphan forced into military service who has fond memories of broadcasts that aired on the same frequency she is currently using.
The concept of All the Light We Cannot See is a solid one, but tough to adapt thanks to its parallel story tracks and one of the characters being visually impaired. The fact that one of these characters is a Nazi soldier makes the adaptation for a wider audience a bit trickier. Levy and Knight work around this by jettisoning large swaths of Werner’s backstory and instead focus on making Marie feel like a damsel in constant distress. The shorthand required to compress the narrative of Doerr’s book into four hour long episodes means the creators only focus on the splashiest of high spots; moments designed to make the viewer cheer, jeer, or cry the loudest. It’s the type of spectacle crying out for quieter moments of reflection, sadness, and empathy, but there’s nary any space left for it amid all the carefully calculated near miss cat and mouse games and massive bombing raids.
This lack of depth makes All the Light We Cannot See hard to be taken seriously, and leaves one questioning what the audience is for such a project. It’s too long and dreary to appeal to teens who might be drawn to the big emotions and attractive leads, but also far too silly and contrived to please more seasoned viewers. The constant need to make the characters run and hide over and over again makes Levy’s direction and Knight’s script feel repetitive before the end of the first episode. In fact, the uninspired action beats and pounding of the same emotional notes makes one wonder why this couldn’t have just been a single, stand alone film instead of a limited series. Granted, it is nice to see a limited series know when not to expand things out to eight or ten instalments, but even four hours seems indulgent for what Levy and Knight are trying to accomplish.
While the story and its handling have been boiled down to the level of an empty crowd pleaser that’s all chorus and no verse, there are bright spots to be found throughout All the Light We Cannot See. Loberti, a visually impaired performer who was discovered following an extensive search to play Marie, and Hofmann deliver strong performances that sell Knight’s material better than anything Levy is trying to accomplish behind the camera. They are likeable performers, even if they seem far too old to be playing these characters as they have been written. Similarly, Laurie brings a considerable amount of weight and credibility to the role of Marie’s uncle, a former WWI soldier still traumatized by that war, now forced into rejoining the fold. Laurie is the only performer capable of providing this production with any sort of serious dramatic backbone, and the scenes he shares with Loberti and Hoffman are hands down the best moments All the Light We Cannot See has to offer. The production design and hair and make-up teams are also delivering some above and beyond details in the technical department.
But while some are blameless, the faux prestige Levy is trying to ascribe to his take on things borders on the ludicrous, turning a story with a lot of moral grey areas into an uncomfortable, laughably earnest bit of vaudeville. It’s the kind of series where it takes place in a foreign country, but no one speaks any languages other than English or settles on a unifying accent. (A moment when a character shows they are trying to learn French is particularly and unintentionally hilarious.) The worst offender here is Ruffalo, who is shockingly miscast as Marie’s father and in turn delivers what is without question the worst performance of his career. Ruffalo’s jarring participation drags down an already alarmingly toneless, shapeless, and corny production even further, but such poor work on the part of an otherwise solid actor with a good track record reeks of someone simply going along with what they’ve been told by their director. No one in All the Light We Cannot See feels like they’re occupying space in the same story, because outside of the swelling musical stings, explosions, and relentless pacing, Levy hasn’t settled upon any unifying tone other than “make it big.”
These various miscalculations all build to a conclusion that would border on being offensively bad and condescending if it weren’t for the fact that everything coming before it wasn’t already so overcranked and unsubtle. It’s hard to be let down by an overly corny and tidy ending when everything else that came before it was already sweet enough to rot the teeth. By the end, All the Light We Cannot See has successfully conditioned the viewer to expect less than what it should be getting from something with so much potential. Nothing here comes across as organic and reasoned; just convenient and contrived melodrama from start to finish. It’s not an altogether unwatchable disaster thanks to its slickness and two likeable leads, but All the Light We Cannot See will definitely suck up one’s time without giving much of anything back in return. It is the turning of grand tragedy into faceless content.
All the Light We Cannot See streams on Netflix starting Thursday, November 2, 2023.
Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get weekly updates on our latest contests, interviews, and reviews.