Nat Geo’s ‘A Small Light’ Is a Profound Take on Anne Frank’s Story: TV Review
The story of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who hid in a cramped attic with her family during the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam, is widely known, and amid the atrocities of the Holocaust, Anne’s diary presents a story of resilience and unrealized dreams. Nat Geo’s new limited series “A Small Light” isn’t Anne’s story, though the precocious teen’s legacy is embedded throughout. The brainchild of former “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunners Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, the series is a tale of resistance, activism and humanity. The narrative centers on one tenacious young woman, Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, who risked everything to save the Frank family, and countless others.
Beautifully shot by Phelan, Susanna Fogel and Leslie Hope, with a slight sepia tone to ground the audience in the time period, the series opens on July 6, 1942, when the Frank family goes into hiding. Miep (Bel Powley) is tasked with getting Otto’s (Liev Schreiber) eldest daughter Margot (Ashley Brooke) through a Nazi checkpoint and into the secret annex above the office building where Miep and Otto work. Quick thinking and determined, Miep ushers the teen to safety via bicycle past the gun-toting and cruel German soldiers. It’s the first of many risks she takes to combat the racist, authoritarian regime.
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With Margot safely sequestered, the series goes back in time to 1933. Nine years before the Franks vanished from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, the audience is introduced to a 20something Miep, whose life and focus are a world away from Germany’s newly installed Nazi regime.
At 24, Miep differs significantly from the 33-year-old woman who captivates in “A Small Light.” Still living with her adoptive parents and brothers, she spends her days frolicking with her best friend Tess (Eleanor Tomlinson), dancing, drinking and bantering with Jan (Joe Cole), the man who would eventually become her husband. An ultimatum from her increasingly exasperated parents lands Miep at the Opekta office run by Otto Frank, who had recently emigrated from Germany.
By framing the pilot around Miep’s past, the audience becomes acquainted with a woman — an immigrant in her own right —who has always shunned tradition, embraced the ostracized and marched to the beat of her own drum. Miep’s bond with the Frank family, Anne (Billie Boullet) in particular, becomes a central component of the show. Therefore, nine years later, as Miep nimbly moves through now-Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, it’s clear why she doesn’t hesitate when Otto asks for her help. Powley’s performance is particularly arresting. Her sharp blue gaze and determination to do what was right at a time when others looked the other way sets the series’ tone from the pilot through the finale.
Across eight episodes, “A Small Light” portrays an increasingly hostile Amsterdam, while centering Miep and Jan’s mutual and respective acts of resistance. While Miep acts to aid those in the annex, taking on shopping lists, having heart-wrenching talks with her stoic boss and even aiding additional Jewish refugees, Jan’s defiant acts also get increasingly dangerous. Phelan and Rater zoom in on the effects of their choices. The secrets and fear sometimes causes friction in their marriage and reverberates in their relationships with others. Yet, Miep and Jan’s willingness to protect the ostracized extends well beyond the Frank family and the additional four people hiding in the annex. The series also showcases the couple’s resolve to aid their landlady’s grandchildren, college students, babies, nurses and workers at Amsterdam’s Jewish council.
“Motherland,” the series’ third episode, is a standout. The lack of space, light, and freedom wears on the mental health and well-being of the hidden and oppressed. This is carefully juxtaposed with the exhaustion and sorrow felt by Miep, Jan and their fellow resisters, who are trying to maintain their courage in a world festering with hate. In the episode, Jan is tasked with collecting a package, which leads to a jaw-dropping revelation. Meanwhile, tight living quarters in the annex cause frustrations and irritations to bubble up, particularly with an increasingly frazzled Edith Frank (Amira Casar).
There is a lot of anguish in watching “A Small Light,” mainly because the ending is already known. Yet Rater and Phelan, and writers William Harper, Ben Esler and Alyssa Margarite, Jacobson sprinkle in glittering moments of defiance, humor and perseverance that help temper the very real feelings of rage and terror laced throughout the series. It’s a balancing act that isn’t often handled as eloquently as it is here.
In “A Small Light,” as in life, there are no innocent bystanders, only people who refuse to act. Ultimately, Miep preserved history with Anne’s diary. She returned the young girl’s words to her brokenhearted father, the sole survivor out of the eight hidden in the annex. “A Small Light” showcases humanity’s wounds, and what’s at stake if people refuse to stand up to evil.
“A Small Light” premieres on Monday, May 1, at 9/8c on National Geographic with two back-to-back episodes. New episodes will debut every Monday at 9/8c on National Geographic and will stream the next day on Disney+ and Hulu.
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