'All the Light We Cannot See' review: A sweet, if heavy-handed, adaptation of a beloved novel

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August, 1944. American aircraft bombard the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo. A blind girl in a townhouse reads Jules Verne on a radio broadcast while waiting for her father and great-uncle to return home. Not far from her, in an upscale hotel-turned-fortress, a German soldier listens to her words. They are connected inextricably and will become more so as bombs fall, but they don’t know it yet. Doerr’s epic war novel spans years and covers much of Europe. Its many pages are filled with cursed gems, secret codes, and radio technology.

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Given the novel’s heft and immense popularity, adapting it for the screen presents a tricky challenge — one that director Shawn Levy (

Stranger Things,

Free Guy) and screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Serenity) mostly rise to meet. The four-part series fails to recreate Doerr’s lyrical writing, and instead relies on heavy-handed dialogue. However, it more than makes up for that shortcoming with its genuine earnestness and high-quality production, which results in an adaptation that is cinematic and sweet in equal measure.All the Light We Cannot See is part war story, part coming-of-age tale.

Nell Sutton and Mark Ruffalo in “All the Light We Cannot See. “Credit NetflixWhile the opening of

All The Light We Cannot Se
shows a boy, a girl and their experiences during the bombing in Saint-Malo is a few years old, the story that led up to this point spans several years. The series goes back in time to examine each character’s early years, using Saint-Malo events as a frame. Knight’s adaptation of the book spends more time in Saint-Malo. However, the chronological back-and-forth recalls the structure of Doerr’s novel, all while creating a sense of inevitability: Everything in the boy’s and girl’s lives has been leading to these fateful few days in Saint-Malo.

The girl is Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti). She lives in Paris, with her father Daniel Ruffalo (the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History), before moving to Saint-Malo. He gives her a model of the neighborhood so she can learn the roads and tells her all about the wonders at the Museum. The Sea of Flames, a famous jewel, is one of these wonders. According to legend, whoever owns it will live for eternity but their loved ones will suffer terrible misfortune. The British accents of all the supposedly French characters are what Marie’s part in All the light We cannot see suffers the most. It’s a common thing in period films, but it is still annoying.

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Even when the Nazi invasion of Paris forces Marie and Daniel to flee to Saint-Malo to live with Daniel’s Uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie), Marie seeks out the professor’s broadcast wherever she can. Marie continues to listen to the Professor’s broadcasts, even when Daniel and Marie are forced to flee Paris to Saint-Malo in order to stay with Daniel’s uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie). Werner Pfennig is played by Louis Hofmann, a German orphan with a knack for building and repairing radios. Werner is sent to an elite Nazi academy where he faces unimaginable cruelty. Even as he is sent out on missions to stop illegal radio transmissions – the only thing that keeps him from losing faith in humanity are the words of kindness and guidance of the professor. Both Werner and Marie, despite their differences in nationality, hold on to the professor’s words of guidance and kindness as they watch the world grow darker around them. Both Loberti, and Hofmann, wear their hearts on the sleeves. They each create a portrait that is hopeful and clear-eyed. Both actors are relatively unknown to American audiences. Hofmann is most recognizable for his work in the German series
Dark

, while Loberti is a complete newcomer. Their takes on Marie and Werner shine throughout the series, and while they rarely share the screen, All the Light We Cannot See

makes sure to draw parallels between their resourcefulness, kindness, and perseverance.

All the Light We Cannot See

is a feast for the senses.Louis Hofmann in “All the Light We Cannot See. “Credit NetflixIn additional to its two strong leads, All The Light We Cannot Seen

benefits a beautifully developed world. While much of the series was shot in Budapest and Villefranche-de-Rouergue, exterior shots of the real Saint-Malo help ground us in the city, from its narrow streets to its massive wall extending along the sea.All the Light We Cannot See

A young man in a soldier's uniform runs along a wall as an explosion occurs nearby.

also relishes in the tactile — a choice that drops us right into Marie’s point of view, as touch is one of the primary ways in which she navigates the world. Marie, a young girl, examines the details of the Parisian wooden model with her fingers, then reaches for familiar objects in Etienne’s home, such as bannisters, tables, and chairs. Thanks to this focus on texture, we become extra receptive to everything from bomb shrapnel to the rubble strewn across Saint-Malo.
Equally captivating is the show’s use of that all-important titular light. The show’s use of light, whether it is the golden rays of the sun diffusing throughout a room or the warmth from a campfire keeping darkness at bay keeps us captivated. Night scenes from the show are a welcome antidote for today’s overly dark night scenes. Here, blues and crisp shadows triumph over a shapeless darkness. This is fitting, considering the many speeches in the show about how the light always triumphs over the darkness. This feat is best demonstrated in a sequence where the evil Nazi gemologist von Rumpel, played by Lars Eidinger, hunts Marie (the protagonist) through a darkened cave. The moon reflected on the water, and the bombs exploding outside create a contrast between natural beauty and wartime terror. The Sea of Flames, a gem that shines as if it were lit from the inside, is also a dangerous piece of art. Von Rumpel’s obsession and its alleged curse make this a more dangerous than a treasure. James Newton Howard’s stirring score contrasts the explosions and whistles of artillery and bombs. The radio is the main source of duality throughout

All the light we cannot see . The radio is referred to as a weapon of war by both Nazi officers and French Resistance members, but it is a way for Marie and Werner to connect and feel less alone in a time when there’s great turmoil. It is this path that All The Light We Cannot Se

emphasizes repeatedly, rejecting cynicism and bringing an optimism message to beautiful, blinding lights. It will be available on Netflix in November.