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Bel Powley is an actor without subterfuge, which I mean only as a high compliment. I feel the same way about Florence Pugh. Their characters are still capable of lying, but neither performer can lie to the camera. When they’re miserable, it bursts through the screen. When they’re joyful, it’s contagious.
Powley is an interesting and effective choice, then, to play the lead in A Small Light, an eight-part NatGeo limited series that’s all about hiding and subterfuge. Playing an ostensibly ordinary woman who responds to an extraordinary challenge by finding the hero within, Powley sets the tone, or rather a variety of tones, for A Small Light. She brings more humor and hopeful energy than you might expect based on the topic, and underlines every emotionally crushing twist and turn you’d expect from a series adjacent to one of the most beloved and devastating stories ever told. It’s a great performance anchoring a series that makes some missteps, but mostly does a delicate thing in an honorable and also engaging way.
A Small Light
Cast: Bel Powley, Liev Schreiber, Joe Cole, Amira Casar, Billie Boullet, Ashley Brooke
Creators: Joan Rater and Tony Phelan
A Small Light, created by Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, recounts the attempted hiding of Anne Frank, her family and several others, from the other side of the Annex, putting the focus mostly on Powley’s Miep Gies.
When we meet the Austrian-born Miep, she’s in what seems to be a precarious position (much more precarious positions will come). Her adoptive family is worried about her lack of direction and they have two solutions: Get a job or marry her brother, Cas (Laurie Kynaston). Even though Cas, who only Miep knows is gay, isn’t her biological brother, she still opts to try to get work at Opekta, the Amsterdam outpost of a German spice company.
Otto Frank (Live Schreiber) hires her and soon becomes the paternal figure Miep desperately needed. As the Nazis roll into Holland and the Franks are unable to secure a visa to go to the United States — please watch The U.S. and the Holocaust — Otto asks Miep for her help in hiding and supporting his family, including wife Edith (Amira Casar) and teenage daughters Margot (Ashley Brooke) and Anne (Billie Boullet). She agrees without hesitation, assisted by now-husband Jan (Joe Cole), but she has no way of anticipating the responsibilities this action will entail or how it will change her.
Eight hours seems like a lot here, especially given how many of the supporting characters in the story barely register — Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman and Bep Voskuijl, Miep’s three Okepta colleagues and collaborators, only get names and personalities in the last couple of episodes — but the value of the duration is established in the early going. It isn’t some hollow attempt to over-idealize pre-War Amsterdam, but rather to convey the complicated shadings of everyday life before it all goes to hell.
Miep and Joe get to have a brief, but significant, prelude of a love story that’s integral to investing in their marriage under strain. Anne Frank gets to be introduced not as a proto-martyr, but as a teenage girl with thoroughly relatable joys and insecurities. Even Doctor Pfeffer (an underused, but valuable Noah Taylor) gets introduced doing some dentistry — a hint of who this person, barely a tertiary character in Anne’s narrative, was before he took his place in the cramped and eventually concealed quarters in the Opekta. Heck, did you know or remember what it was that Otto Frank’s company did? I did not, so get ready for a refresher course in pectin and the finer points of jam-making.
It’s smart and thorough writing, living up to the series’ premise of expanding on a well-known story that has always had boundless emotional range. Phelan and Rater are able to answer many questions about what the not-instantaneous creep of Nazi horrors looked like in Amsterdam. There’s room to get into the heads of the citizens who didn’t think they were at risk until the chipping away of civil liberties forced them to make a choice about how they wanted to live, between resistance and collusion. With the Franks slightly outside of the center, the specific Jewishness of their experience is perhaps soft-pedaled — but I can accept an argument either that that’s a story that’s already been told or that this story is reflective of gradations of secular Jewish life that the Nazis didn’t care about.
The first three episodes of A Small Light are directed by Susanna Fogel (The Flight Attendant), who is exceptionally good at finding bursts of levity in worlds that would be exclusively dour in other hands. The camera captures rousing nights on the town, convivial workplace interactions and the general hustle and bustle of daily life in Amsterdam in the foreground and Fogel finds subtle and not-so-subtle ways — the reflection of a swastika in a pair of sunglasses, antisemitic graffiti on walls or the sound of booted marching — to develop mounting tension. The production values throughout are very solid and the opportunity to shoot in Amsterdam (and Prague) adds real authenticity.
As the series goes along, it invariably gets darker, and although I remained emotionally connected — lots of tearing up took place over these eight hours — my brain started kicking in with quibbles. Most of my problems were inevitable. If you’re building intercutting storylines in which one involves genocide and the other involves… literally anything else, there will always be an attention imbalance. Knowing where the Frank story goes, you’re just not going to get me to invest equally in that and, like, whether or not Miep’s best friend’s new boyfriend has Nazi sympathies. The series tries heightening the stakes on the Miep side by turning Jan into something like the Forrest Gump of the Dutch Resistance movement, requiring some leaps that strain credulity, though if weaving actual figures like Willem Arondeus (Sean Hart) into the series gives folks something else to Google, I’ll allow it.
I’m less accepting of the necessity to build cliffhangers into a series where the fates of the main characters are this well-known, though being able to binge the series makes those episode-enders less egregious than trying to make me wait a week to find out whether or not the Nazis will discover the Annex! Whatever my reservations are about the second half of the season, A Small Light ends powerfully, no cliffhanging required.
I led with my praise for Powley, and her ability to nail both what’s heartbreaking and what’s inspiring is what holds the show together, as does the sweet and unforced chemistry she shares with Cole. The ensemble around them is generally excellent. Schreiber is nicely understated and paternal, toning down his more natural bombast and offering caring support for Powley, Brooke and the note-perfect — precocious but not too precocious — Boullet. Even the small and underwritten roles are well-cast, though I’ve spent a week trying to make sense of who’s doing various kinds of accents and why. It’s a hodge-podge.
Mostly, though, come for the inspiring reminder that heroism comes in many forms and that it’s measured in doing what’s right and doing what you can, not only in scale; stay for Powley and the ensemble. We can debate the efficacy of the recent run — see also Netflix’s Transatlantic — of Holocaust-ish dramas that manage to be surprisingly light on their feet by de-emphasizing actual Jewishness at some future moment.
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