The greatest heroism often resides in the actions of ordinary people in extraordinary situations and times, and so it is with “A Small Light,” which tells the story of Anne Frank through the eyes of Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide her and her family. Slow starting at eight parts, the National Geographic/Disney+ miniseries builds steadily, in a fashion that’s ultimately both stirring and heartbreaking.
The story opens with Gies (Bel Powley) desperately needing a job to avoid having her adopted family try to marry her off to her (secretly gay) brother. She gets hired by Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber, terrific if barely recognizable), a successful businessman preparing to bring his family to Amsterdam to join him.
Flash forward to 1940, and the Germans are marching in, eventually leaving Frank, as he puts it, with “nowhere to go,” except the annex space above the office, where his family and four others would spend more than two years.
“What I’m asking you to do is dangerous,” he warns Gies, but she finds the reservoirs of strength to assist them, along with her husband Jan (Joe Cole) and a handful of others, who are dogged by the reality of not knowing who they can trust.
The format allows the producers (a team led by Tony Phelan and Joan Rater) to take the time to get to know the various players, including Miep and Jan’s sweet, awkward courtship. That pays dividends later as the two are tested, separately and together, as they seek to help those displaced and endangered by Nazi atrocities.
“A Small Light” exhibits considerable restraint in creating that sense of tension mostly without explicit violence, but with the persistent threat of it if their charges are discovered. The series also conveys the thirst for shreds of normalcy and moments of lightness amid their confinement and constant fear of exposure, tempered by the pain of those separated from loved ones, especially children.
Among the more quietly devastating scenes, Miep gifts the wide-eyed young Anne (Billie Boullet) a pair of shoes, proceeding to tell her all the weird and wonderful things that she will do in them as she grows older – a journey, the audience knows, which will never come. The same goes for the Franks celebrating the bombings that rattle their makeshift home, praying for the allies’ arrival.
Gies – who found and preserved Anne’s diary, which Otto later published – lived to be 100, and the title is derived from her oft-stated quote about the ability of even an ordinary person to “turn on a small light in a dark room.”
“A Small Light” takes its time in illuminating that source of inspiration, but by the time its eight chapters have concluded, its big heart should ensure that there isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a dry eye in the house.
“A Small Light” premieres May 1 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic, with episodes streaming the next day on Disney+.