I finally caught up with “A Small Light,” which premiered earlier this month. The eight-part miniseries is set during World War II and the Holocaust, but it’s not about the Nazi death camps. It’s about Miep Gies and her cohort in Amsterdam, who helped hide Otto Frank, his family, and four others in a secret annex during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Yes, it’s another take on the Anne Frank story, but it’s from the perspective of Miep, her activist husband, Jan, and others who helped resist — but especially Miep. She is a young woman whose idealism and sense of justice are intensified by her own childhood story of immigration. She does everything she can to help Otto, her boss and friend, as the show moves back and forth between 1934 and 1945 to capture the gradual creep of evil. Anne figures prominently, of course, but Otto, played by a gentle Liev Schreiber, is more central to the action.
Taking a heroic approach to that time is always risky, but “A Small Light” does a fine job of it. Without ignoring the fate of the people in the annex, and without turning into a mushy inspirational tale, the series honors Miep’s and Jan’s courage and disgust of fascism. Miep is a complicated character, thanks to the script and, most importantly, to actor Bel Powley. She is remarkable as Miep, at first a flighty and somewhat lost creature who matures through her bond with the Franks and, later, her desire to protect. Powley’s large eyes are marvelously expressive, and she refuses to let heroism into Miep’s intentions. Her performance reminded me why I’ve been a Powley fan since her winning and unique work in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” in 2015. The rest of the cast is strong, too, including Eleanor Tomlinson (“Poldark”) as Miep’s best friend, who falls into passive acceptance of Nazi cruelty. Billie Boullet is charming as Anne, whose bright, restless mind is a thing of beauty, and Joe Cole is quietly powerful as Jan, who refuses to share his resistance activity with Miep to protect her.
What would you do if your neighbors were being shipped to death camps, their homes and belongings taken from them, and their dignity, too? “A Small Light” invites that question, as it gives us Miep, Jan, and others putting their lives on the line. It’s a valuable story, and it’s told with grace. The show ran on National Geographic, and it is now available to stream on Disney+ and Hulu.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.