Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See Starts Strong Before Crumbling Under Its Own Weighty Story

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Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See Starts Strong Before Crumbling Under Its Own Weighty Story

I was initially planning to write a review of All the Light We Cannot See, directed by Shawn Levy (Stranger Things) and written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), based on the world premiere of the first two episodes at the Toronto International Film Festival. I left the premiere screening highly impressed and excited to see what would happen next. Imagine my surprise, then, to read the first reviews of the Netflix miniseries, which have been mostly negative.

There are two commonalities amongst all these negative reviews: they came from critics who had read and loved the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Anthony Doerr (I have not read it), and they came from critics who had watched screeners of all four episodes (I didn’t know they were available, given my plans to review based around the TIFF screenings). On that first count, I’m happy to offer a different perspective. On the second, however, I didn’t want to be missing the full experience, so I sought access to the screeners, and I can now confess that I generally like the miniseries, though I like it less than I did when I was just halfway through.

To broadly summarize the show, it follows two characters in Nazi-occupied France whose paths intersect during the Battle of Saint-Malo in 1944: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French girl helping the resistance through coded messages in radio broadcasts, and Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a reluctant Nazi soldier who’s an expert on radio technology and has been listening to Marie-Laure’s broadcasts. The series jumps between the two leads’ perspectives and different time periods through non-linear storytelling.

The material concerning Marie-Laure and Werner’s childhoods is the most interesting (the younger Marie-Laure and Werner are played by Nell Sutton and Lucas Herzog, respectively). Marie-Laure’s father Daniel (Mark Ruffalo) works at the French National Museum of Natural History, and the LeBlanc family must attempt to preserve the light of culture against the onslaught of fascism—as well as specifically protecting a valuable, possibly magical or cursed jewel because the Nazis are an awfully superstitious bunch who want such a thing. Werner, meanwhile, is an orphan who figured out how to bypass the Nazis’ restrictions on foreign radio signals and as a result is forced into working for the Nazis to avoid punishment. The scenes of him at the National Political Institute of Education are a chilling representation of the violence of indoctrination.

Aside from some questionable accent choices (Germans still speak with German accents because Americans think those sound scary. But the French speak in British accents because Americans think French accents sound silly and British accents sound smart), the performances in the show are very good. Loberti, a blind Fulbright scholar who had never done any acting before auditioning for the series, is a revelation—an incredible screen presence who also helped guarantee the authenticity of the series. And beyond the performances, all the sound and visual crafts are strong enough that watching the premiere in a movie theater felt downright cinematic.

With all that said, how does it so badly decline from such a strong premiere? The third episode is a bit messier script-wise. The non-linearity means we are seeing characters learn things in the past we know they are privy to in the present, and the split narrative means we have to see different characters figuring out the same obvious twists. The latter is particularly significant regarding the story of Marie-Laure’s uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie), which (as best as I can tell) has been significantly changed from the book, and is done no favors here. The cliffhangers also threaten to become repetitive, though the series’ short, four-episode runtime prevents this from becoming an overwhelming issue.

The final episode is also a mixed bag: it has some suspenseful and cathartic moments, but the ultimate meeting between the two main characters is a bit odd and underwhelming. Even without having read the book, it’s clear that the ending was heavily softened in tone from more complicated source material (Levy told Entertainment Weekly that he was deliberately avoiding certain upsetting moments). Also, any ending that involves throwing a jewel into the ocean is inevitably going to bring to mind Titanic, which is maybe not the comparison they want to make.

So, how does the Netflix version of All the Light We Cannot See fare from the perspective of someone without an attachment to the book? Not bad, though not as great as it could have been given its strong debut episodes. At the very least, it’s worth watching for Loberti’s outstanding performance and the generally impressive production value, but it’s clear that it could have been so much more. 

All the Light We Cannot See premieres November 2nd on Netflix. 

Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist, a member of the neurodiverse theatre troupe EPIC Players, and a contributor to Looper and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter (he refuses to call it “X”) at @AndalusianDoge or on Bluesky at @andalusiandoge.bsky.social.

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