A Small Light Tells the Riveting Story of Anne Frank from a Unique Perspective

TV Reviews A Small Light
A Small Light Tells the Riveting Story of Anne Frank from a Unique Perspective

Anne Frank’s story of hope, bravery, and resilience—told through the lens of a curious, intelligent, perceptive, and at times impatient girl—has resonated since her diary was first published in 1947. Anne has posthumously become a source of inspiration for millions, her diary has been published in over 70 languages, and her life has been crafted into countless plays, TV series, and films. 

While Anne Frank’s stirring story is well known, few are aware of the actions of those that helped her, her family, and four friends stay hidden in a Secret Annex for 761 days. That’s the compelling and emotionally jarring tale at the heart of A Small Light, National Geographic’s limited series based on the real life of Miep Gies, who played a vital role in keeping the Franks safe. Full of drama, deception, heartbreak, and love, the series is sure to make audiences view a familiar story with even greater appreciation. And it all starts with the unlikeliest of heroes. 

When we first meet Miep Gies (Bel Powley), she doesn’t appear to be much of a leader. In fact, she seems pretty lost. It’s 1933 and 24-year-old Miep still lives with her adopted family, is unemployed, and has no marital prospects. Urged to grow up or marry one of her adopted brothers, Miep’s life quickly changes when she interviews for a job with Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber). Despite having no discernible skills, Miep’s big personality and refusal to take no for an answer lands her a position, and she soon becomes an indispensable cog in a tight knit office. 

Flash forward to July 6, 1942. The Germans have occupied the Netherlands for two years. Unable to make it safely out of the country, the Franks’ plans to go into hiding are accelerated when Otto’s daughter Margot (Ashley Brooke) is ordered to report to a work camp. To keep the Germans occupying Amsterdam from being suspicious, the family splits up, with Margot riding her bike with Miep through a Nazi checkpoint. It’s a harrowing few minutes with a terrified Margot about to draw attention to herself, but Miep does what she always does: steps up. 

A Small Light on National Geographic, streaming on Disney+

Clever, cunning, and stronger than her slight stature would indicate, Miep guides the two through what could have been a tragic encounter. It’s one of many moments that shows not just the growth of Miep’s character over time but also her unshakable resolve. 

Over the course of eight episodes, viewers will see Miep act as a sounding board for Mrs. Frank (Amira Casar) when she starts to go stir crazy, and watch her have the guts to try (and sadly fail) to bribe a Nazi SS officer. She even shares several sweet moments with Anne (Billie Boullet), who is just as feisty onscreen as she is in her own diary. But it’s through Miep’s husband and boss where we truly learn how amazing she is.

Jan (Joe Cole) transforms over the course of the season almost as much as his wife. A nebbish social worker, Miep meets him at a bar while he’s reading a book on philosophy. Their relationship, initially one of convenience, is frequently tested—particularly when Jan joins the resistance. Despite a rough start, the two are the glue that hold the series together with their love, commitment, and interdependence making them a formidable pair. Cole and Powley have great chemistry, and Jan’s occasionally independent adventures give A Small Light a spy thriller vibe. 

For a series full of subterfuge, the show also contains surprising moments of tenderness, especially in scenes between Miep and Otto. He is the father she never had and Miep is his surrogate daughter. She even looks like she could be Margot and Anne’s older sister. The scenes with Schreiber and Powley are some of the series’ most memorable and touching. It’s a side of Schreiber you’ve likely never seen, and he’s magnificent as Otto. 

Over the course of the season, every wonderfully written character grows. Anne becomes less petulant, Jan more brave, and Otto less stoic. But without a doubt, Miep is a star-making role for Bel Powley. She does a masterful job portraying an unimaginably brave, thoughtful, smart, and determined person who never backed down. Powley’s range is phenomenal, particularly when she shows Miep’s funny side. 

You wouldn’t expect to find humor in content so heavy. There are moments in this series that are guaranteed to make you cry and break your heart. But A Small Light provides levity at just the right moments. While looking for a resistance contact at a bookstore, Jan points and wonders if someone stacking books is the person they’re looking for. Miep replies, “That’s how a Nazi would stack books. With brutal efficiency.” Later in the season Jan and Miep are starving, but manage to laugh their way through eating tulip bulb soup, which is as terrible as it sounds. 

Moments like those are a reminder that finding even a small bit of humor in a dire situation helps us maintain our humanity. It also does a wonderful job of bonding the audience to characters because it gives them a sense of authenticity. 

While A Small Light is centered on Miep Gies, if you’ve ever read Anne Frank’s book, this series will have a significant impact on you. It did for me. For 12 years, I taught sixth grade and we’d read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank every year. It was powerful every time. Despite being quite familiar with Anne’s book, I had no clue about Miep’s story. Watching this series, which shares several references with the diary, was like learning something new about a topic I thought I knew well. 

It’s also a reminder that the real Miep Gies’ most famous quote, which the title of the series references, is timeless: “I don’t like being called a hero, because no one should ever think you have to be special to help others. Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, in their own way, turn on a small light in a dark room.”  

The two-episode premiere of A Small Light debuts Monday, May 1st on National Geographic. Episodes are available to stream the next day on Disney+.

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not reading Nietzsche in bars, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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