TV review: We were the Lucky Ones: Good series, shame about the lighting

This family drama works well, but the oppressive darkness in which it is filmed is difficult to watch


We Were the Lucky Ones

Disney +  | ★★★★✩

This is the story of a family. As they gather for Pesach, they are like any other Jewish family – delightedly welcoming the son who has been living far away, chattering with gossip, joining in with the blessings and the songs. Why is this night different from all other nights?

Well, this is Radom, Poland in 1937 and in a year, war will break out. We spectators know, although the family do not, how utterly everything will change for them in a devastating way. And from the title we guess that this will be a story of survival, although we do not know exactly who – and how many – will be the ‘lucky ones’ until the very end.

The series is based on Georgia Hunter’s novel, which was in its turn based on her own family’s story. Although she wrote it as a novel, this is no The Tattooist of Auschwitz romanticised fictionalisation, but a serious piece of work underpinned by years of research. The drama could have gone down the route – like the Tattooist series – of telling it within the frame of Hunter’s story, how she discovered only in high school that her grandfather had fled Europe, then finding our more aged 21 at a family reunion. That they did not use this device is a strength, not a weakness – although the photographs of the real family are shown at the end, with real emotional impact.

With a huge cast to keep track of, the first episode is a whirl of introductions. The parents are Sol and Nechuma, they have five grown-up children. There’s Addy, the talented composer and engineer who is living in Paris; his younger sister Halina who has red lipstick and a feisty attitude, there’s older brother Genek, a lawyer; and younger brother Jakob, a law student, and Mila the older sister.

With husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, I’d just about got the gist of who everyone was when – whoosh – the screen turned black. At first I thought something had gone wrong with my television, but no, director Thomas Kail, it soon became evident, had made the stylistic decision to convey the Kurc family’s plight by plunging them into darkness as often as possible, whether in dimly lit interiors, or (in later episodes) unlit forests or grim prison cells.

Call me old-fashioned, but I quite like to see actors acting, and I prefer to watch my television without worrying that something’s gone wrong with the way it works. By the time I’d switched the living room lights on and off and on again, and fiddled with the brightness of the screen I’d somewhat lost the plot, and could hardly tell one sibling from another, apart from Halina with the helpful red lipstick.

The way in which Jews were dehumanised and hunted, and went from comfortable affluence to terrorised prey is well portrayed, even if the lighting is murky. The fury felt by the family’s mother when (spoiler alert) she returns to Radom post war and finds their apartment lived in by strangers brought a poignant piece of my own family’s history to mind. The casting of Jewish actors is a sensitive, conscious choice.

One of the siblings works as a forger for the resistance, a great example of Jews actively fighting against the enemy threatening their existence. The family saga blends with all kinds of generally untold bits of Jewish history, at a time when the world needs the reminder of what was done in the name of hate.

So it’s a good series. I just wish that the literal darkness had lifted more often.

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