As bombs fall from the sky and the Nazi-occupied French city of St Malo burns, a blind young woman broadcasts a message of hope over the radio by reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea in braille.
This is how we meet Marie-Laure, the heroine of 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which has now been adapted for the screen by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight.
In the dramatic opening, Marie-Laure is in fact reading a secret code to help fight the Germans. The scene is made even more extraordinary when you know the actress playing Marie-Laure (newcomer Aria Mia Loberti) cannot see in real life – this series is the first large-scale production to cast a blind actor in a central role.
This tender tale, set between 1934 and 1944, interweaves the stories of two children who find ways to hold on to their humanity amidst the horrors of World War Two. The first is Marie-Laure, who flees Paris with her widowed father, Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo), for St Malo in Brittany to live with reclusive uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie).
Daniel, a museum curator, is hiding a precious jewel from the Nazis. Meanwhile Etienne, who is suffering from trauma, transmits secret radio broadcasts for the Resistance. The second strand follows German teenager Werner (Louis Hofmann), who has a gift for radio mechanics and is forced by the Nazis to hunt down pirate broadcasters.
Aria Mia Loberti (pictured), who is blind, stars as the teenage Marie-Laure. This tender tale, set between 1934 and 1944, interweaves the stories of two children who find ways to hold on to their humanity amidst the horrors of World War Two
This leads him to the cobblestoned streets of St Malo in pursuit of Marie-Laure and her family.
Director Shawn Levy (Stranger Things) decided to cast two blind actresses in the role of Marie-Laure to make the show authentic; Nell Sutton from Wales (aged seven when she was cast) plays Marie-Laure as a child before Aria takes over. ‘I realised I just couldn’t have an actress come in and fake it. It was wrong on every level,’ Shawn says.
Aria was in academia before she responded to an open casting call for blind and low-vision actresses, filming an audition tape from her bedroom while wearing her grandma’s 1940s blouse. ‘I never allowed myself to dream about acting when I was little,’ she says.
‘You just become used to people telling you what’s possible for you and you accept it.’ Aria was determined to perform many of her own stunts – including shooting a 1917 Colt revolver – to counter stereotypes of blindness.
‘People assume blind people aren’t physically capable,’ she says. ‘I’m physically strong and I thought it was an important point that needed to be made.’
A blindness consultant ensured the set was accessible (braille signage was placed throughout and Aria was accompanied by her guide dog, Ingrid) and that the portrayal of a blind person in the 1940s was historically accurate.
For example, Aria deliberately adopted a flawed braille method – nowadays we have modern techniques to enable people to read more easily. Marie-Laure also hides her blindness from the Nazis to highlight how disabled communities were violently persecuted by them.
Louis also learnt some old-school skills to play the part of mechanical genius Werner convincingly. Before filming started, he practised building old radios for up to five hours a day – eventually completing one in 56 seconds.
Young Welsh actress Nell Sutton, pictured, plays Marie-Laure as a child. A blindness consultant ensured the set was accessible (braille signage was placed throughout and Aria was accompanied by her guide dog, Ingrid) and that the portrayal of a blind person in the 1940s was historically accurate
This dedication to accurate period detail is maintained throughout – almost all of the costumes are real clothes from the time.
Costume designer Andrea Flesch’s grandparents actually fought for the French Resistance, which influenced her choices. ‘Despite the war, my grandma used to dress very nicely, and this inspired me,’ she reveals.
Filming took place in St Malo, although the LeBlancs’ house was built on set and dressed with 1940s bric-a-brac, including old wallpaper and a vintage record collection. The streets of Budapest stood in for Paris, but during the shoot Russia invaded Ukraine, just 200 miles away.
Given the subject matter of All The Light We Cannot See, the horrible irony of the invasion was not lost on the cast and crew, who supported war efforts by transporting first aid equipment and employing Ukrainian refugees as extras. ‘It’s appalling that history can be allowed to repeat in this way,’ says Shawn. ‘But to be there telling this story, in that time, in that place – it was unsettling but deeply impactful.’
All The Light We Cannot See is on Netflix from Thursday.