The long-anticipated adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s bestselling and Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See is finally here. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely not.
There is money behind it, it’s beautifully lit, lovingly shot – it looks gorgeous. But here’s the thing. When you are adapting a book about a blind French girl making illicit radio broadcasts in the occupied French coastal town of Saint-Malo and a reluctant German orphan snapped up by the Third Reich for his magical radio skills secretly listening every night and finding a vestige of hope therein, while dealing with questions about the value of art and life, the encroachment of evil and the possibility of redemption, you had better be pretty hot on the latter stuff or you are going to be punting down the River Twee into Triteland very quickly indeed.
Such is the journey director Shawn Levy (Stranger Things, the Night at the Museum film franchise) and writer-showrunner Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) have embraced. So, in 1944, we have teenage Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti, in her first role) reading from her braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in between pleas for her missing father and Uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie) to come home or let her know they are safe. Allied bombs fall around her, shattering windows picturesquely and leaving dust in her hair. “I know that broadcasting could get me killed,” she says as she replaces the microphone on the glass-sprinkled table, “but I will not be silenced.” Come back, friendly bombs, and fall on the scriptwriter.
In a terrifically French bistro nearby, an evil Nazi, Sgt Maj Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger), is menacingly eating oysters and drinking wine served by a frightened but brave bistro owner. Von Rumpel seems to have been imported from another thing entirely – ’Allo ’Allo!, perhaps, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. The last becomes the frontrunner when it is revealed that he is hunting for a cursed gem hidden by Marie-Laure that he thinks will cure him (of cancer, not nazism). The terrifically French bistro owner declines to pass on the girl’s whereabouts: “Go to hell!” “Don’t be ridiculous,” Von Rumpel responds, because that scriptwriter bomb missed. “It is quite clear we are in hell already” – and kills him.
Meanwhile, our good orphaned unwilling Nazi, Werner (Louis Hofmann), survives the loss of his unit to the aerial bombardment and is soon keeping Marie-Laure’s existence hidden from their replacements by any means necessary.
There are flashbacks too: to Werner’s childhood in the orphanage because he is such an orphan; and – much more challengingly because they involve Mark Ruffalo at his most sickeningly schmaltzy and doing a European accent – to Marie-Laure’s childhood. We see Ruffalo as her museum curator father Daniel, teaching her the way around Paris via miniature carvings of the cityscape and then out in the real world itself. All the while, he assures her that blind people in 1930s France have nothing to worry about at all, and he’s going to show her some beautiful jewels she can see with her fingers – which is like having 10 eyes, five times more than most people have! (I do not make this up.) But he must not show her one jewel called the Sea of Flames because that is cursed, and no, he never touched it. Her mother is dead but that’s nothing to do with anything. Oh no, now it’s 1940 and the Germans are coming: hide the jewels in this dinosaur head, but not the Sea of Flames; he’ll pocket that secretly without her seeing because it turns out that fingers are not 10 eyes. And oh, here are the Nazis – we’d better go to Saint-Malo and be safe.
Back in the present, Marie-Laure dips her face in remarkably clean bath water before a stained glass window and ponders the wisdom of all things. Good for her.
It is terrible. The acting is almost uniformly bad. The dialogue gets worse and worse (or if it’s Von Rumpel’s, vurse and vurse). All nuance is lost, all thought has been excised and it feels both drearily slow and stupidly rushed. Maybe this superficial, self-indulgent mess would have come over more favourably if war hadn’t just broken out again in the real world, but them’s the breaks. Though even in the middle of a long unbroken peacetime, this was never going to do more than look good.