Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

TV Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ review: Netflix adaptation lacks nuance

Nell Sutton as younger Marie-Laure and Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc.  (Netflix)
By Moira Macdonald Seattle Times

Watching a screen adaptation of a book you loved can be a fraught experience. Sometimes it’s enlightening, in which you see in the film elements of the book that you didn’t catch upon first reading, letting you experience its joys anew. Sometimes it’s interesting, in which you may not agree with the interpretation but nonetheless engage with it, intrigued by seeing the book through different eyes. And sometimes it’s just annoying, with everything magical about the book squashed like croissant crumbs under a heavy boot. Alas, the new Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” fits into that third category. It is, and I am summoning up the kindest word I can find here, a slog.

Directed by Shawn Levy (who’s never made a literary or a period film before, and it shows) and adapted by Steven Knight, “All the Light” isn’t a movie but a limited series, with four episodes about one hour each. Doerr’s book, set mostly in the historical port city of Saint-Malo in 1944, has at its center two teenagers: a blind French girl named Marie-Laure (called just Marie here, and played by Aria Mia Loberti) who fled the Nazi invasion of Paris with her father (Mark Ruffalo), and a Germany radio prodigy and reluctant Nazi soldier named Werner (Louis Hofmann). It’s a lyrical, heartbreaking, beautifully written tale of war and loss and ingenuity, and of what it means to truly see.

And good luck finding any of that lyricism in this version, because it’s gone. The Netflix series is beautifully filmed, to be sure – shot in the sort of melancholy blue-gray tones that make even bombings look exquisite, with relentlessly art-directed interiors that look like the French Airbnbs of one’s dreams, should one’s dreams involve wartime deprivation and poetic-looking lighting. But the delicate rhythms of Doerr’s prose here become abrasive, as we’re yanked abruptly from one time period to another. Robbed of the nuances that a novel has room for, the story just feels confusing and melodramatic. The Nazis are cartoonishly evil, the heroes are wildly heroic, the cliffhangers between every episode feel like bad soap opera, and the accents are all over the place. Only Loberti’s performance, which has a lovely, quiet sincerity (and kudos to the filmmakers for casting a blind performer in the role), stands out, but its effect is diminished by the fact that the actor is obviously well out of her teens.

There’s an unexpectedly moving sequence over the end credits, involving quiet music and actual black-and-white footage of wartime Saint-Malo, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who lacked the energy to get that far. Luckily, the book’s still on the shelf; read it again, and enjoy the movie in your head – it’ll be far better than this one.