Lazy students of the future will appreciate the new World War II miniseries “All the Light We Cannot See.” It will provide them with a bland Cliffs Notes survey of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel by Anthony Doerr when their teachers ask them to read it. The miniseries, on Netflix, skims the surface of the story and the characters just enough to get them through a 50-minute class.
The story gives us Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French woman who’s hiding in an attic apartment in the Nazi-controlled French town of Saint-Malo. Late at night, she broadcasts over a shortwave radio, reading excerpts from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” — coded missives to the Allies — and sends messages of hope to her father and uncle, played by Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie, respectively. Meanwhile, a young occupying Nazi, Louis Hofmann’s Werner, listens to her on the air. An orphan selected to serve because of his brilliance with radio engineering, he does not stand by the Third Reich in his heart, despite his actions. Wound into that story is a jewel mystery. Marie-Laure’s father took a legendary gem known as the Sea of Flames from the museum where he worked to keep it from the Nazis. One of those Nazis, Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger), is desperate to get his hands on it, because he believes that touching it will magically help cure his terminal cancer. He is a very bad man, well more of a caricature than a man. So: Marie-Laure is very good, her father is very good (despite Ruffalo’s very bad accent), her uncle is very good, Werner is very good, and von Rumpel is very bad.
That’s the central problem with the four-parter: the consistent lack of nuance, which turns all of the characters into either saints or evildoers. When it comes to Werner, that’s particularly odd — as if writer Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) doesn’t think viewers will be able to handle some of the moral complexities of that awful time. The show, directed by Shawn Levy (“Stranger Things”), doesn’t dig into the big issues it raises, most notably about the possibility of redemption in such extreme circumstances. It skirts them, focusing more on the atmospherics.
It’s too bad, especially since it’s an attractive production and Aria Mia Loberti, a legally blind actress found in an open-casting call, is a promising actress as Marie-Laure. The simplistic script does her no favors, but she is a magnetic lead nonetheless.