After winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See was in high demand by various Hollywood studios.
Netflix acquired the rights in 2019, going on to announce that it would be turned into a four-episode mini-series written by Steven Knight and directed by Shawn Levy.
Unfortunately, the adaptation of the lauded material is so mishandled that anyone who hasn't read the novel could be forgiven for wondering why All the Light We Cannot See was praised so highly in the first place.
The series begins in August 1944 as Allied troops bomb the city of Saint-Malo in Nazi-occupied France. As they do so, Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French teenager uses a radio to read out Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to its distressed citizens. She has been tasked to do so by her great-uncle Etienne LeBlanc (Hugh Laurie), who has gone into hiding.
Both Marie-Laure and Etienne are being hunted by Nazis, in particular Sgt Mjr Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger). He is seeking Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo), Marie-Laure’s father who also works as the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and has been missing for several months. Rumpel demands that young Nazi Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann) aid his efforts to find Marie-Laure but, having secretly denounced the party, he instead looks to keep her existence hidden so she can continue to broadcast.
What won't be surprising to anyone is how Netflix’s decision to hire a director known for making family-friendly comedies – Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum and Free Guy – to oversee a deeply sincere, emotional and existential story never comes close to working.
Levy clearly wants to make something that’s both epic in its scope and intimate in the way it treats its heartbroken characters. Its opening sequence seems to draw inspiration from the likes of Saving Private Ryan and A Matter of Life and Death, as Marie-Laure continues to broadcast while bombs are dropping all around her.
While it's forgivable that it cannot reach the same heights as such masterpieces, what's not is how it can barely match even the most average war film.
A major problem is that All the Light We Cannot See merely ends up repeating scenes and treading the same ground as many prior Second World War movies, while also vaguely touching upon themes of grief, trauma, art and hope in a manner that’s both cliche and condescending.
This isn’t just Levy’s fault, though. All the Light We Cannot See was developed and written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, See, The Girls in the Spider’s Web), and his scripts are a simplistic and woeful adaptation of rich and complex material. So much so that throughout the series, one can’t shake the feeling that both Knight and Levy treat viewers like schoolchildren.
Not only are the characters one-dimensional and, frankly, unremarkable, they announce everything they’re feeling and planning in a gratingly inauthentic style. We're also never given a chance to invest in them or their efforts, while the repeated flashbacks eradicate any momentum it threatens to build.
But even Levy and Knight’s efforts aren’t quite as embarrassing as Ruffalo’s performance. It’s hard not to both laugh and cry at his terrible and distracting British accent, which only makes his overly heartfelt turn as Daniel even more excruciating to watch.
Not everything is an utter failure. Loberti makes a startling debut as Marie-Laure, James Newton Howard’s music repeatedly elevates the trite material, while cinematographer Tobias A Schliessler ensures that each episode always looks utterly beautiful.
Ultimately, all this glossy style does is make All the Light We Cannot See’s complete lack of substance feel all the more hollow and wasteful.