Shawn Levy’s All the Light We Cannot See is the latest adaptation to join Netflix’s abundant supply of mediocre, half-baked shows that could’ve been masterpieces but have ended up being dead stock because of their sheer lack of heart. What is set out to be a story about two teenagers from opposite sides during the Second World War ends up coming across as a very dry love story. The series follows the lives of three people (mainly) during the Second World War. Their lives intersect in the Nazi-occupied small town of St. Malo during its bombing. Netflix executive 1: “Let’s make a mini-series with this 500-page book.” Netflix executive 2: “Sure, how about 4 episodes under 50 minutes? It should be enough to cover all the important details”. Sold. Alright, it’s not fair to say that every TV or film adaptation of a popular novel has been bad. In recent years, we’ve seen some amazing ones like Normal People, or Shadow and Bone that changes things up on purpose. The problem here is that, in an attempt to make a short series that is lighthearted (even with the subject of war), it completely loses its compass.
All the Light We Cannot See is sometimes tedious to watch, and I did in fact watch some parts sped up so I wouldn’t get bored. In the hopes of putting out a less melancholic take on the Second World War, Levy’s take on the popular novel has cardboard characters and no backbone at all. What’s especially disappointing is how the ensemble cast doesn’t help either, even if all their performances are pretty good. The show is also non-linear and focuses a lot on flashbacks to make the audience aware of what is happening, but there’s no real development and everything is quite predictable. I haven’t even read the book, but through a simple summary, I could understand that this is a superficial take on a relatively good novel. The most intriguing part of this story is Marie’s (the French girl) and Werner’s contrary lives. A blind French girl who is raised by a loving father who would give up the world for her and, on the other side is an orphan who gets forced to become a soldier because of his gift with radios. Everything is circumstantial, and nobody chooses to do what they do in war. Yet, there’s an additional storyline that, instead of elevating the show, makes it feel too fantastical.
A Nazi officer is tasked with collecting precious gems for the Führer, and he’s desperately in search of Marie, whose father worked in the National History Museum. What he’s actually looking for is a diamond that is cursed (huh). Although everyone is expendable in war, this man is keen on surviving with this “cursed” stone. If I say more, I’d be going into spoiler territory, but I’m sure you can imagine how this goes. On the other hand, there is Uncle Etienne and his sister Madame Manec, who are also integral parts of the story, but somehow their characters are left to dry because, of course, there’s no time to cover everything that’s going on. What I find would’ve been better would be to omit some of these storylines completely and focus on Marie and Werner to create those hopeful rays of light well. Instead, we get distracted by all these other things that ultimately burden the viewer and take away from the parts that are worth it.
The relationship between Werner and Jutta (his sister) is integral to his choices and character, but somehow we barely get to see any of Jutta. After everything Werner has to go through through the course of the show, she is his conscience, but her role could’ve been expanded on much further.
Visually, the show is beautifully shot (for the most part), but it’s drowned in disjointed storytelling. While it is possible to tell a war story without being graphic and still manage to make a tremendous emotional impact, All the Light We Cannot See comes across as being too stubborn to show us the darker sides fully. We must bear in mind that this is an award-winning novel beloved by many, but it gets totally lost in translation on screen. The advantage this show has is the innate likeability of the actors who play characters we’re supposed to root for. Mark Ruffalo specifically comes across as an absolute sweetheart as Marie’s unconditionally loving father, who does everything he can to bring light to his daughter’s life. The interactions between him and young Marie have to be a big highlight of the series. German breakthrough actor Louis Hofmann from the successful show Dark, is a delight to watch and brings heart to a character we should find hard to vouch for. Hugh Laurie comes across as a little bit animated as Great Uncle Etienne. Newcomer Aria Mia Loberti is also fantastic as the kind yet self-assured Marie and does a fantastic job at jumping through the many emotions the character goes through. The background score is a little bit overstrung and sometimes makes the show too cheesy and fantasy-like.
Ultimately, this show has too much going on but nothing of substance. What’s surprising is that even though it is helmed by the likes of Levy and Steven Knight, with a fantastic ensemble cast, it fails to impress on all fronts. Even though the show is only 4 episodes long, it is extremely slow and feels much longer. Ultimately, this is yet another forgettable one with the promise of greatness. Maybe some things are best left in the dark. I would give All the Light We Cannot See 2 stars out of 5.