To review work pertaining to the Holocaust, is to be somewhat conflicted. I mean really, what am going to do, give something a bad review?
Sure, there may be some frustration that so much of the output about Jews concerns those events, but it’s overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude that they’re being explored, remembered and that they can enlighten.
There are exceptions though, for example with something like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where it feels like the Jewish experience of what happened is relegated to background fodder to tell a story.
What makes A Small Light so special then, and important, is that it manages to both centralise the tragedy inflicted on European Jewry, via arguably the Shoah’s most well-known family, the Franks, but from an exterior perspective.
By seeing the events unfold through the eyes of Miep Gies, who was Otto Frank’s secretary, there’s a distance that gives us space to experience the madness and inhumanity in a different way, while also placing an emphasis on the question: if we saw these things occurring to others, what would we do?
Through the eight-episode mini-series, as Disney+ releases them in two-episode chunks, we follow Miep as she argues with her foster parents about her partying and lack of direction, as she gets her first job, as she meets a man and marries, and as her boss asks her a question:“Can you help us?”
Bel Powley as Miep Gies and Eleanor Tomlinson as Miep’s friend
Portraying Otto Frank, Liev Schreiber’s look of relief, gratitude and fear as his face crumples when she says yes, speaks to the level of desperation of someone who knows all too well what awaits him and his family, and also comprehends that despite trying every alternative, their fate is now ultimately in the hands of others.
It’s this question of putting yourself at risk that inspired the series creators, married team Tony Phelan and Joan Rater.
They are not Jewish, and their most recognisable work is Grey’s Anatomy, so they may not seem the most obvious choice for telling this story, but the contemporary sensibility they bring to the dialogue and characters places us right in the narrative.
Some might find the spoken English and written graffiti jarring, but they get the balance just about right between accessibility and strident authenticity.
Joe Cole, from Peaky Blinders, brings his usual intensity to the role of Jan, Miep’s husband, initially pulled in to help by circumstance, soon driven by moral imperative, but it’s Bel Powley as Miep, who impresses most, successfully holding the series together in her transformation from naive liver of life to heroic giver.
As the series progresses and more Jews come under her care, all are dependent on her finding the bravery and cunning to help keep them hidden and alive.
Even after the betrayal that we know is coming, Miep manages to save Anne’s diary for her father and then the world. Powley and this show do justice to the small light that shined so very brightly.
A Small Light
Disney+ | ★★★★✩