A Small Light review: Anne Frank's story is reclaimed in gripping World War II drama

Miep Gies (Bel Powley) in A Small Light. (Disney+)
Miep Gies (Bel Powley) in A Small Light. (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)
  • 📺 Where to watch A Small Light: Disney+ from 2 May

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 4/5

  • 🍿 Watch it if you liked: Jojo Rabbit, The Man In The High Castle, Hunters

  • 🎭 Who's in it?: Liev Schreiber, Joe Cole, Noah Taylor, Bel Powley 

  • How long is it? 8 x 50 minute episodes

  • 📖 What’s it about? It follows the remarkable story of Miep Gies, a Dutch woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank's family from the Nazis for more than two years during World War II.

Sometimes A Small Light in the dark is enough to overcome anything. Hemmed in by an oppressive regime yet compelled through compassion to protect the helpless against tyranny – this is the Disney+ (under the National Geographic banner) story of Miep Gies (Bel Powley), who hid Anne Frank (Billie Boullet), her family, and so many others from persecution during World War II.

With Emmy-nominated show runners Tony Phelan and Joan Rater (Grey’s Anatomy) at the helm of this wartime period piece, audiences are in safe hands, as they are dropped into Nazi-occupied Amsterdam on 6 July, 1942.

There is a curfew in place which prohibits Jews from being out after dark as an incremental persecution slowly starts segregating those of a certain faith, forcing them to carry identification papers and be judged according to a corrupt doctrine.

Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) and Edith Frank (Amira Casar) in A Small Light. (Disney+)
Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) and Edith Frank (Amira Casar) in A Small Light. (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

Bel Powley owns her audience in the opening minutes of A Small Light with wide-eyed optimism and effervescent guile, which instantly strips this wartime drama of its oppressive edge. Faced with faking her way past a German checkpoint without papers, she coaches Margot Frank (Ashley Brooke) through the subterfuge as they ride their bikes towards potential danger.

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It is a savvy scene setting exercise, which tells audiences everything they need to know about their resourceful heroine, without deviating too far from grounded reality. This tense opening soon segues back to 1934, where a series of interlinking introductions reveals Miep in more carefree moments, quickly provides backstory and crucial character context, prior to her life-changing encounter with Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber), and Jan (Joe Cole).

Jan Gies (Joe Cole) in A Small Light. (Disney+)
Jan Gies (Joe Cole) in A Small Light. (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

That these showrunners and their room full of writers were able to include those important storytelling elements, imbue each moment with momentum, yet still lace this drama with an inherent optimism is admirable. The opening episode skilfully establishes relationships, underlines the threat of Nazi invasion, and does it all without feeling formulaic.

Once those pieces are in place and A Small Light leans into its espionage roots, this settles into the confines of a family melodrama, with the prospect of arrest, interrogation, and incarceration in labour camps a real possibility.

However, what consistently counteracts the knowledge of mass genocide which so colours this time period, once again comes down to the writers. There is more than a little bit of Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit present in this series, which also incorporated those atrocities into its story.

In much the same way, A Small Light acknowledges and illustrates them within its narrative, but never affords those moments more screen time than necessary.

Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor) and Miep Gies (Bel Powley) in A Small Light. (Disney+)
Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor) and Miep Gies (Bel Powley) in A Small Light. (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

Instead, this series focuses on Miep Gies and her relationship with the Frank family, from father figure and businessman Otto, through to aspiring author and globally recognised diarist Anne. This tempers the more diabolical elements of this historical drama with genuine human kindness, ensuring that the Frank family keep their dignity despite the hardships they endure.

This is also a series defined through subtlety, from the reflection of a swastika in sunglasses, through to antisemitic graffiti daubed on shop fronts which barely raises an eyebrow – this is a thoughtful examination of mass genocide which doesn't feel like homework.

Bram (Jim High) in A Small Light (Disney+)
Bram (Jim High) in A Small Light (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

If anything, A Small Light celebrates the little victories of seeing in a new day, taking pleasure from spending time with family, or engaging in selfless acts for others incapable of helping themselves. It's a theme which is embodied most strongly through Bel Powley, as she provides this National Geogrpahic original with its moral centre.

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Aided and abetted by her husband Jan, they slowly but surely find themselves embroiled in riskier activities, above and beyond harbouring Otto Frank and his family. Whether that might be more entrenched rebellion through affirmative action or relocating small children with surrogate families. Not only making it a consistently riveting piece of television, but moving the narrative beyond Dutch borders to identify this as a genuine World War.

Alfred (George Cobell) Jan (Joe Cole), Miep (Bel Powley) and Liddy (Audrey Kattan) in A Small Light (Disney+)
Alfred (George Cobell) Jan (Joe Cole), Miep (Bel Powley) and Liddy (Audrey Kattan) in A Small Light (Disney+) (National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

Beyond that, Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) delivers an impressively low-key performance as Otto Frank, immersing himself in character and giving this show some real gravitas in the process. He provides a deeply paternal foundation to this tale, as he puts more and more pressure on Miep out of necessity, in an effort to protect his family.

Part confidant and counsellor to his indomitable charge, A Small Light shines most brightly when these two actors have scenes together. Sharing thoughts and feelings between them as an outside world seeks to wipe out an entire belief system.

A Small Light is no mere fiction conjured from the mind of an isolated screenwriter, but a series based on fundamental facts, making this Disney+ drama essential viewing for audiences after something more serious.

A Small Light is available on Disney+ from 2 May. Watch a trailer below.