Throughout her career writer-director Amma Asante has done a remarkable job of opening up history, via swoonsome love stories centred on people of colour previously erased from the narrative. ‘Belle’ and ‘A United Kingdom’ were wildly romantic as well as quietly humanistic condemnations of racism, and they worked beautifully as such. But with the World War II-set ‘Where Hands Touch’, Asante has perhaps injected too much romance into too unworthy a man.
The setting is 1944, and German Rhinelander Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) moves with her daughter Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) and son Koen (Tom Sweet) to Berlin. She hopes that Leyna’s mixed race heritage will be less noticeable there, but of course the house-to-house Gestapo raids continue and Leyna remains in danger.
This examination of the barely discussed fate of Nazi Germany’s black people is potentially fascinating. Leyna is a loyal German, but her protestations earn her no mercy from her own government. She’s forced to carry (false) papers of sterilisation to show that she will not pass on her ‘impure’ blood. But Asante also draws focus on a swastika-crossed love interest with a German boy and soon-to-be Nazi officer Lutz (George McKay). Alas, their tentative exploration of one another’s attitudes to race, country and Nazism descend quickly into melodrama and potentially even bad taste as the film heads to a concentration camp.
Stenberg, who was stunning in ‘The Hate U Give’, feels reined in here. While her terrified politeness and meekness makes sense in a Nazi-run state, she’s never allowed to express the personality that would show how much she’s holding back. It makes her seem distant, even in close-up, and results in a flimsy, unengaging story that exploits its setting too clumsily for real impact.