All the Light We Cannot See – Blind to storytelling [TELEVISION REVIEW]

Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure and Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc. Photo courtesy of Timea Saghy and Netflix © 2023

When watching a filmed version, whether good or bad, of a popular or beloved novel, there are several things one needs to do. First, drop all expectations. Some things work on screen, others don’t. Directors and adapters have their own agendas, sometimes enhancing and often detracting from the underlying material. The resurgence of the mini- or limited series has opened up the chance for screenwriters to be more expansive in their translation of books to screen. Ignore the past life of the material and take it at its new face value.When it comes to adaptations, don’t judge the book by its cover, judge the piece by itself.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is set in 1944. Anthony Doer’s best seller was a lovely, lyrical and tension-filled book about the parallel lives of a blind girl in Saint-Malo in France and a German boy at a Nazi Institute of Education for elite young men. Relying heavily on the source material, Steven Knight and Shawn Levy tell Doer’s stories of the girl, Marie-Laure who, despite her handicap, is broadcasting stories over the air that conceal messages to the Allies for their impending invasion; and of the boy, Werner, an orphan with a genius ability with radio transmitters. Werner and Marie have a very important bond. They both grew up listening to a science program broadcast in the years before the war. It inspired them both. 

Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. Photo courtesy of Atsushi Nishijima /Netflix © 2023

Werner, forced into action by a regime he despises, will be tasked with tracking down illegal radio signals that may be aiding enemies of the Nazis. Marie, left alone in St. Malo by her father when they escaped Paris, has her aunt and uncle to rely upon. Before he disappeared, Marie’s father hid a famous but cursed gem, an enormous diamond called the Sea of Flames. As the Allies get closer and closer to St. Malo, the Germans become more desperate to find Marie and her radio. But one German, Sergeant Major von Rumpel, doesn’t care about the radio. He’s after the Sea of Flames and will stop at nothing to get it.

Somehow, despite good source material, Knight and Levy have flattened the narrative and made it mundane. Tension that plays a major part in the book is almost entirely missing, something that was hard to do given that the story involves Nazis hunting and terrorizing the residents of St. Malo.  The spotty acting doesn’t help. In her very first acting role, Aria Mia Loberti, Marie-Laure, is not believable as a naive 16 year old left to fend for herself in a town she doesn’t know. Although visually impaired, Loberti, 30, is unconvincing. Mark Ruffalo as her father Daniel is stiff, without the naturalism he is famous for, using an indefinable accent. More convincing is Hugh Laurie as Marie’s Uncle Etienne, a leader in the Resistance who gives Marie her radio broadcast reading assignments. Louis Hofmann, Werner, is a German actor with international credits. It’s a difficult role but he leads with his conflicted emotions and is the sympathetic core of the series. My favorite, however, is the villain of the piece, von Rumpel, as played by Lars Eidinger. He literally stole the recent Max series “Irma Vep” and has been seen in an international array of excellent films from “My Little Sister” to “Proxima.” A truly evil character, you can see the desperation he wears on his face and in his movements. 

Fans of the book will be sorely disappointed; it will be merely perplexing to those who approach it for the first time.

Now streaming on Netflix.



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