When a film opens with a quote from James Baldwin you know you're in for a racially charged examination of life. It's a shame that this tale of extreme prejudice gets neutered by a director who appears to have tripped on her own artifice.
English writer/director Amma Asante, who warmed us with the inter-racial story of A United Kingdom and explored to great effect similar themes in sweeping period drama Belle, keeps things safely within her wheelhouse here. As is Asante's inclination, Where Hands Touch examines again how a dominant group reacts to a minority presence. And again, to the backdrop of a budding romance. And (yes, again) tells a story that is "inspired" by historical events — an adjective that allows Asante to play fast and loose with the truth.
Thankfully, the "inspired" bones that this tale is built on make for an intriguing premise. Leyna (the excellent Amandla Stenberg from The Hate You Give) is a bi-racial teenager living in Nazi Germany when Hitler's Aryan regime is in full swing. Her mother, played by Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), is painfully aware of how Leyna's African features stand out, and is determined to hide her away from the brutal regime. But when Leyna falls for a German soldier, Lutz (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic), the courtship puts both their lives at risk.
The two leads make an earnest but engaging love-struck pair and their performances quietly resonate the frustrations of forbidden love. However, they are contrasted by a supporting cast that feel jarringly stilted by comparison. Patchy acting, questionable accents and a clunky screenplay that tamely wends its way down a lazy river of fawning predictability, further hamper a film that screams for the authenticity and inventiveness of Asante's previous directorial outings.
Credit to Asante for reminding us that there are still plenty of stories from this era that have yet to be told … they just need to be told better than this.
Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Christopher Eccleston
M (Violence, sex scenes & nudity)
A clumsy treatment of an intriguing premise.