Whatever was transcendent or lyrical about Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” gets lost in translation from page to screen in this hackneyed and surface-level adaptation from screenwriter Steven Knight and director Shawn Levy. Any insight into the human condition is traded away in favor of underdeveloped characters who speak in on-the-nose metaphors; World War II atrocities play out like superhero movies stuffed with cheap thrills and big explosions (and what appears to be CGI Nazi stormtroopers).
Mostly set in the Nazi-occupied French coastal town of St. Malo in 1944, the four-episode miniseries follows the lives of two teenagers. There's the blind French teenager named Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti), who broadcasts an illegal radio show each night in hopes of locating her missing father, Daniel (Mark Ruffalo), once the keeper of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, or her uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie), a member of the French Resistance. Then there's Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a German orphan who was forced to join the Nazis because of his proficiency with radio technology.
As young people, both Marie-Laure and Werner grew up listening to a radio show broadcasting at the 1310 frequency in which a calm-voiced host known as the Professor taught lessons about reason and sense through philosophy and science, always accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Claire De Lune.” A plot point hinges on several characters not realizing that Etienne is the Professor despite the voice obviously being that of Hugh Laurie, and it's one of the many aspects of the book that just does not lend itself well to adaptation.
Somehow shoe-horned between these two interlocking stories is Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger), a Nazi with a vague yet terminal illness searching for a jewel called the Sea of Flames, which he is convinced is in the possession of the LeBlancs, because of its supposed healing qualities. Eidinger plays Reinhold on one deeply unhinged note throughout all four episodes, never adding any interior layers or finding a rhythm that fits the rest of the series.
This is a key problem with much of the acting in Levy's adaptation. Each actor feels like they’re playing a character rather than something resembling real life. Part of the fault here lies in Knight’s script, which is either laden with clunky exposition or overly flowery language. It also doesn’t help that each of the French characters is played with actors doing British accents (except, of course, Laurie, who just sounds like his normal British self), despite the German characters all being played by actual German actors. Then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who cannot do any accent whatsoever and therefore adopts several different ones throughout his screen time.
Levy’s directorial choices leave much to be desired as well. Marie-Laure is often filmed with precious close-ups that present her as an object of pure goodness, but she is given little to no moments that show her depth of character or, frankly, that give Loberti a chance to show her talent as an actress. The idea that “everything has a voice, you just have to listen” becomes a philosophical worldview she shares with her father and an oft-repeated line. Unfortunately, this repetition slowly strips the phrase of any real meaning. In the series' most cringe-inducing moment, Marie-Laure utters it like a quip in an action film, just before she opens fire on an aggressor.
Hofmann doesn’t fare much better, playing Werner with the same deer caught-in-the-headlights look in any situation, whether confronting a commanding officer or being brutally hazed as a teen at the Nazi training school known as the National Political Institute of Education. One of the few scenes in which Hoffmann can break out of this one-note stupor is when he's assigned to work with another radio operator played by Felix Kammerer, who was so wonderful in last year’s “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Kammerer, with his soulful eyes, transcends the mediocre material and brings a raw and rare authenticity to his character.
That a performer as naturally expressive as Kammerer is used in approximately two scenes is a perfect example of how Levy's "All the Light We Cannot See" is one artistic miscalculation after another. Great actors and good source material are not enough when they’re in the hands of the wrong filmmakers, and nothing about this final product suggests that Levy or Knight was the right choice to bring this story to the screen. Their vision for Doerr's novel is shallow, messy, and, most unfortunately, instantly forgettable.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure
Louis Hofmann as Werner
Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel
Hugh Laurie as Etienne LeBlanc
Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc
Jakob Diehl as Captain Mueller
James Dryden as Monsieur Caron
Corin Silva as Frank Volkheimer
Marion Bailey as Madame Manec
Nell Sutton as Young Marie-Laure