The Anne Frank story has been burned into the cultural consciousness for decades now—a tragic tale of hope and resilience in the face of apocalyptic violence. But Frank didn’t get herself up to the Secret Annex, nor did she survive 761 days of Nazi occupation on her own: She had help, not just from her family but from the everyday courage of those who, when asked to choose between their own safety and doing the right thing, chose the latter.
“A Small Light,” the latest miniseries from Nat Geo, offers a new angle on the Anne Frank saga by focusing on one of those brave souls: Miep Gies (Bel Powley), Otto Frank’s (Liev Schreiber) friend and secretary, who, with a few other employees and friends, helped hide his family from the Nazis for more than two years. In so doing, creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan (“Grey’s Anatomy”) craft a glossy but moving tale of resistance and courage, and the risks everyday people take just to hold on to their humanity.
For the first two episodes, directed with crisp immediacy and vintage charm by “Booksmart”’s Susanna Fogel, Miep is just an ordinary girl trying to grow up in difficult circumstances: She’s a twentysomething layabout with few prospects, no job, and no husband (unless, of course, she marries one of her adopted brothers). Luckily, she meets a nice, sensitive boy named Jan (“Gangs of London”’s Joe Cole) and uses her considerable charm and stubbornness to land a job working for Otto Frank at his company. But whispers of Nazi advancement turn to stark reality, and within a couple of years (and by first episode’s end), Miep finds herself smuggling the Franks to the annex above Otto’s Amsterdam offices one at a time.
We see her cunning pretty early on, as she and older Frank sister Margot (Ashley Brooke) must bike past a Nazi checkpoint. Faced with her first real obstacle (of many to come), Miep does what she does best: Think on her feet and muddle through. “You are so much stronger than you think you are,” she coaches Margot before making their gambit past Nazi officers. She might as well be saying it to herself.
Powley’s work across all eight episodes is tremendous: “A Small Light” is basically a coming-of-age story for Miep Gies, whose own growth into a self-actualized adult coincides with the life-or-death circumstances she faces. She plays Miep with heaps of witty effervescence tinged with cynical practicality, defusing even the most harrowing scenarios with welcome wit. It’s a delicate tonal tightrope to walk—“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” by way of “The Pianist”—but it manages to avoid the funereal pitfalls of a lot of Holocaust stories without turning it into the twee nonsense of “JoJo Rabbit.”
Of course, Mieps' journey is not the only tale of heroism we follow. Jan’s own efforts to sneak ration cards to the Franks end up getting him recruited to the Dutch resistance. There, he sees the other ways, both direct and indirect, his countrymen resist the Nazis—and the little sacrifices they must all make along the way. Cole and Powley’s chemistry is palpable, especially as their doe-eyed naivete gives way to a hardened recognition of the things they must do to save others (and the secrets they have to keep from each other) over the course of the series.
But the clear highlight of an already-stellar cast (which also includes Noah Taylor and Andy Nyman as fellow Annex residents) is Schreiber, whose Otto is the pillar upon which the show truly rests. It’s a turn of noble resolve and determination, a quiet man whose bravery spurs Miep to demonstrate some of her own. (Their scenes together, often the quietest in the show, are some of the show’s best.) Schreiber’s always been a king of speaking volumes through the quietest rumblings of his deep baritone, and this is a stellar showcase for those qualities.
Naturally, the show makes at least some time for little Anne Frank (Billie Boulet), with her wide-eyed hope for the future and that red checkered diary that would become one of Western literature’s most essential texts. But Rater and Phelan keep her perspective squarely in the margins: It’s Miep, and her untold reserves of bravery, that “A Small Light” keeps its spotlight firmly on.
As the real Gies famously said: “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.” “A Small Light” tests this hypothesis in heartwarming, humanistic ways; even as audiences know how the Frank story will end, you share their feeble hopes that maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it. And even if they don’t, at least their story will survive—not one of misery and turmoil, but of lives lived, and the little bits of happiness scrounged from the darkness.
Whole series was screened for review. "A Small Light" premieres on the National Geographic channel Monday, then streams on Disney+ and Hulu.
Bel Powley as Miep Gies
Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank
Joe Cole as Jan Gies
Amira Casar as Edith Frank
Billie Boullet as Anne Frank
Ashley Brooke as Margot Frank