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Traditionally, historical dramas have been restricted to the lives, loves and losses of white, usually male, protagonists. Much-needed change over the years has been slow but recently there’s been a noticeable increase in films shining a light on a wider array of experiences. The box office success of Hidden Figures arrived in the middle of a boom in the development of multiple stories centered around women of color, from an upcoming biopic about the life of civil rights activist Angela Davis to Julie Dash’s overdue ode to Rosa Parks to news that Cynthia Erivo is set to play Harriet Tubman.
Back in 2013, the British director Amma Asante preceded this with her sleeper hit Belle, a period drama focused on the life of a biracial woman trying to make her way in high society. She followed it up with 2016’s A United Kingdom, a modestly received retelling of the romance between Seretse Khama, the president of Botswana, and a white British woman, and her latest brings yet more diversity to often stuffy, monoracial territory.
In Where Hands Touch, like in Belle, Asante is inspired by historical events rather than strictly tied to them. In this instance, she was influenced by the stories of Germans of color during the second world war. In the film, Lenya (rising star Amandla Stenberg) lives a life on the periphery, comfortable in the confines of her home with Aryan mother (Abbie Cornish) and brother but reminded by the world outside that the color of her skin separates her from a German society dominated by Nazis. As her freedom starts to feel increasingly restricted, she unexpectedly falls in love with the son (Pride’s George MacKay) of a high-ranking SS officer (Christopher Eccleston) as the country reaches boiling point.
Asante has again zeroed in on a unique viewpoint in a busy subgenre and experiencing Nazi Germany through the eyes of a biracial girl does lend an initial freshness to the proceedings. The film begins with a James Baldwin quote about questioning one’s role within society and there are interesting, troubling issues at play here with Lenya, already seen by many as an outcast, dealing with a homeland that welcomes her less by the day, despite her German heritage. She is already in the midst of a difficult and confusing time as a teenage girl but as the cruel divisiveness of her country worsens, she finds her self-identity even harder to reckon with, struggling to know how to feel, who to trust and where to belong. Asante has also picked a star on the ascendant in the shape of Stenberg, who broke out in The Hunger Games, and is set to go stratospheric with the buzzy social drama The Hate U Give. There’s definite presence on display here and in her most challenging role to date, Stenberg is truly put through the wringer, as the story goes to some grim, grueling places.
But any sense of vitality or vibrancy is sadly short-lived as Asante struggles to infuse an increasingly hackneyed tale with life. There’s a frustrating inertness to her direction, drowning the film in a cheap TV movie sheen that feels bloated on the big screen. Like January’s Red Sparrow, a film about Russians without any Russian actors, Asante has filled the main roles with Brits, Aussies and Americans, adding to the distractingly constructed feel. The music is overemphatic, the cinematography is plain, the performances are flat and the script is stuck in the same, familiar gear (yes, Cornish’s character does get to scream: “You will not go near that boy again!”).
It’s a film entirely devoid of subtlety yet one that also fails to provide the grand emotion it yearns to deliver, despite the use of a sledgehammer. As the dramatized story fades to black, we see images of black Germans during the second world war, accompanied by some fascinating, harrowing facts, making one yearn for a documentary instead, that isn’t surrounded by such artifice.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Where Hands Touch review – interracial Nazi romance is a well-intentioned bore | Toronto film festival 2018