Home » ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Review – Netflix’s Adaptation is Simplified Yet Still Powerful

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Review – Netflix’s Adaptation is Simplified Yet Still Powerful

by Beatrine Shahzad
Aria Mia Loberti stars as the blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc speaking into a microphone for her illegal radio broadcast during WWII in the Netflix original limited series ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for Fiction, the bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one some would consider a modern classic. After years of anticipation by fans of the book across the world, its adaptation comes to Netflix from director Shawn Levy (Stranger Things, Free Guy) and writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Spencer) as a four-part Netflix original miniseries. The story takes place in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and follows a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), as she hosts an illegal radio broadcast and Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a German forced into becoming a soldier due to his talent with radios.

Marie is suspected of possessing a special diamond the Nazis terribly desire, and as the cruel Gestapo officer Von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger) begins to hunt for her, Werner’s fondness for Marie’s radio show inspires him to protect her. Four episodes is a good length for this Netflix limited series, especially for an adaptation of a novel like this. While All the Light We Cannot See does feel as if it’s a very long film if watched all in one sitting, the show is distinctly cut into four acts and each act works well as a singular entry. Some of the episodes end with cliffhangers meant to keep viewers hanging onto the edge of their seats and begging for more, but they do not carry the necessary gravitas and come off as cheap.

Even though it would be much preferable to watch the entirety of All the Light We Cannot See in one sitting, four hours is an extremely awkward length to commit to. Then again, the binging model works well for Netflix and many find it easier to press play on four episodes in a row rather than one long movie due to the perceived difference in commitment. No one likes to pause a movie to return to it, but if you finish a one-hour episode and don’t really feel like pressing play on the next, it’s not a big deal.

Parallel story construction is utilized well, not only with Marie and Werner’s narratives but also with the dual timelines. It is always easy to follow, and keeps the series moving at a brisk pace as the story undulates between the Americans storming Saint-Malo and the backstory of the two teenage protagonists. Marie grew up in Paris with her father and was forced to flee after the Nazis occupied the city, eventually becoming separated from him and calling out during her radio broadcasts in the present storyline. Werner was raised as an orphan who was forcibly conscripted and cruelly trained at a Nazi university as they attempted to strip away his humanity until Marie’s illegal broadcasts remind him of it again. 

Aria Mia Loberti stars as the blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc sticking out her hand from her window and feeling the fires below caused by war in ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE on Netflix.
Aria Mia Loberti in ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ courtesy of Netflix

Four hours may seem like a long runtime, but that allows for director Shawn Levy and writer Steven Knight to avoid any drag. Instead, the fat has been trimmed so that all that remains is engaging. Both of the leads are instantly sympathetic characters grappling with the terrible effects of the war and are victims in their own way. Despite all the tragedy in their individual stories, they are still extremely capable and yearn to do what is right. There is never a moment where the audience will be begging to return to the main storyline, because each plot thread is both equally relevant and equally engaging.

The casting in Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See is sharp and effective across the board. Newcomer Aria Mia Loberti won her breakout role as Marie through a global search, and she captures the necessary kindness and quick wit to her character. She’s positioned alongside Mark Ruffalo, who plays Marie’s father Daniel LeBlanc, and their father-daughter chemistry is palpable. Louis Hofmann as Werner somehow simultaneously contains a boyish innocence alongside a haunted quality. The cast, which also includes Hugh Laurie as Marie’s great-uncle Etienne, a WWI veteran suffering from PTSD, all bring a multifaceted humanity to their roles. No character ever feels like an archetype, as is often seen in films or shows set during WWII. In this case, the cast ensemble helps elevate the weaker parts of Netflix’s adaptation.

Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc holds the hand of his young blind daughter Marie-Laure played by Nell Sutton in the Netflix original limited series ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.
Nell Sutton & Mark Ruffalo in ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ courtesy of Netflix

On another note, the Netflix miniseries adaptation of All the Light We Cannot See strips the source material of much of its particular tragedy, and its chamber of conventionality prevents it from ever achieving true greatness. It is very streamlined and better contained in four episodes. But, at the same time, it feels very distinctly commercial, as if it was simplified to better match the general audience’s palette.

The action is also, at times, overblown and overdramatic, as if the exaggeration of violence would result in a better-engaged audience, and thus, higher streaming numbers. Many adaptations fall into this trap, especially those written for streamers. Changes between mediums are not inherently bad or negative, as some storytelling devices cannot translate exactly from page to screen. However, the story becomes almost too straightforward here, losing some of its nuances and hand-feeding its thematics to the viewer rather than letting them reach their conclusions on their own.

Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See will never live up to the status and reputation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, yet it is still worth a watch. Even if streamlined and altered, the barebones of the story and its central message are engaging and thought-provoking enough, and the cast brings it to a rich life. At its best, All the Light We Cannot See can be a riveting adaptation, though it teeters into the overblown, and the four hours fly by, for better and for worse.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

All the Light We Cannot See premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The series debuts on Netflix November 2!

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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