‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Review: Netflix Limited Series Fails to Capture Pulitzer-Winning Novel’s Essence

Were one to go into “All the Light We Cannot See” totally cold — drawn to the four-part limited series, say, purely by its placement atop Netflix’s home page — it would be impossible to discern that it was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel celebrated for its lyricism and profundity.

The dialogue here is pedestrian. The lead character, blind French teenager Marie-Laure LeBlanc (screen newcomer Aria Mia Loberti), escapes the German invasion of Paris in World War II with her father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo). They seek refuge in the French port city of Saint-Malo. Yet throughout the journey, and the limited series, our Gallic heroine and Papa LeBlanc speak English with British accents.

The series’ wartime visuals are dark and obviously CG-enhanced. More practical effects include  perfectly contained fires placed in strategic spots to indicate — along with James Newton Howard’s overwrought score — that a neighborhood has been bombed.

This lack of realism, and the story’s focus on Marie and a young German soldier, Werner (Louis Hofmann), who like Marie grew up listening to and adoring a wisdom-spouting shortwave radio host called The Professor, gives “All the Light We Cannot See” the feel of a dystopian teen story. But not one of the better ones, this is something sub-“Divergent.”

There’s also a chance, based on the “Hogan’s Heroes”-esque broadness of the actors playing Nazis, that this limited series intends to be satire. A risky approach given the subject matter, but even the 2019 World War II-set satire “Jojo Rabbit” managed to be both heartbreaking and irreverent.

But this show based on Anthony Doerr’s 2014 book mostly lacks poignancy and does not seem to have been stylized intentionally. Director Shawn Levy (“Stranger Things,” “Night at the Museum”) and screenwriter Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”) apparently took a straightforward approach. Their adaptation of the story simply turned out odd, and mostly bad.

The chief exception is Loberti, an American college student who answered a casting call for blind or visually impaired actors for the role of Marie. A natural screen presence, Loberti shares believably familial chemistry with Ruffalo and with Hugh Laurie, who plays Daniel’s reclusive, PTSD-suffering World War I veteran uncle, Etienne.

The show’s best sequence involves Daniel, locksmith for Paris’ natural history museum, working in tandem with Marie to hide the museum’s valuables from the approaching Nazis before Daniel secrets away France’s most valuable jewel, a diamond dubbed the Sea of Flames, to take with him.

Daniel and Marie move quickly and purposefully through the streets on the way to the museum, and quicker still once inside. Their swiftness and closely coordinated efforts impart their sense of urgency and great familiarity with these spaces (“Night at the Museum” director Levy also seems back in his element).

Marie no doubt visited her father often at his workplace. But Daniel also made Marie a wooden model of Paris for her to study by touch, and does the same for Saint-Malo. Scenes of Loberti traveling by hand through the lovingly constructed models keep the father’s warm presence palpable even when Ruffalo is off screen.

Marie and Daniel have gone to Saint-Malo to stay with Etienne, who lives with his loyal maid and cook, Madame Manec (Marion Bailey). In this part of France, the diet is 98% baguette, berets are mandatory and everyone sounds as if they just migrated from Piccadilly Square.

The actors playing Germans at least are allowed to speak with accents indicating country of origin. But they squander this advantage. Hofmann plays Werner, an orphan with an affinity for radios enlisted into the German military to trace illegal transmissions, with a stoicism bordering on emotional inertia.

While monitoring local radio activity in Nazi-occupied Saint-Malo later in the war, Werner becomes captivated by the voice of Marie, whom he does not know but who uses The Professor’s old frequency to try to communicate with her father. Werner resorts to violence to keep a colleague who also heard Marie from tracking her down. Because Hofmann’s performance is so removed, this action comes off as less protective than psychotic.

It is the rare violent scene in “All the Light We Cannot See” to make an impact. People draw tiny guns on each other so often that the audience develops a nonchalance. Director Levy brings so little tension to confrontations that we care little about their outcomes unless Marie is involved.

This is not from a lack of trying by the actors playing Germans, including Lars Eidinger and Jakob Diehl. They give their all in attempting to embody the faces of evil, to the point of approaching caricature.

As a sweaty, unhinged German officer obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, Eidinger appears to be riffing on Christoph Waltz’s insidiously wicked Nazi from “Inglourious Basterds.” Eidinger’s performance ultimately lacks the menace or surface charm of Waltz’s. Still, you appreciate the big swing in a limited series with a stone-faced male protagonist and little passion elsewhere.

“All the Light We Cannot See” premieres Thursday, Nov. 2, on Netflix.

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