If there’s one point to take away from Amma Asante‘s Where Hands Touch is that nobody can accuse the British filmmaker of making her movie with bad intentions. After exploding on the scene with the sweeping 18th Century period drama Belle in 2013 and her good-natured follow-up A United Kingdom.
Asante’s third feature has finally arrive on Australian shores separate from its understate controversy of late 2018. A mild uproar which was largely overshadow by the recent Oscar ceremony frenzy. And the general week-to-week hysterics that seemingly come married with every new release nowadays.
Love in the time of war is a subject that’s been mine throughout every single historical battle. Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago set the template for what Reds and Ride with the Devil would continue. But sometimes the romances of lovestruck heroes pull apart by war whilst they grow closer together doesn’t quite align with the conflicts that define them.
The proposal of watching Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale wanting to bump uglies during the Pearl Harbour bombings not only seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But most audiences saw it as a disrespectful move to the lives lost in the attack. For them to work, these heat affairs have to be as fiery and incendiary as the warfare. That surrounds them, a bond that’s hard to sell when, with Where Hands Touch, you’ve got the Holocaust as your back-drop.
This film places our teenage lovers in the heart of Nazi Germany during the height of World War 2, where Leyna (Amandla Stenberg)
Whose feelings of being ostracize are inflate by the horrible racial epithets hurle at her by the English speaking Germans that patrol the streets. Not only is she a black female in 1940’s Berlin, but she’s what was crudely dub as a “Rhineland Bastard”.
That is a generation of black children spawn from black French soldiers in World War I and white German women. It’s this aspect of Leyna’s character that clearly entice Asante to pen this script. Where much like her two previous features, she’s supplant the typical clean-cut white protagonist with a more define black character who engages in an interracial relationship.
It’s the choice of a white male partner this time. That has caused some audiences to refrain from watching it at all (and the source of its recent controversy). Alongside her younger brother and hard-working single mother (Abbie Cornish, delivering every line through a furrow brow).
Leyna leaves her home of Rhineland for Berlin, hoping for a safer solution as the war rages on. Which is where she catches the attention of Lutz (George MacKay), a coerce member of the Hitler Youth.
It’s a classic Romeo and Juliet situation, and much like Shakespeare’s oft-copied formula. That seems to be an ill-fated romance driven by lust than any real emotional correspondence. It only takes a single date for them to be utterly devote to each other, with Lutz quick to abandon the ideals driven into him by his slick-hair Nazi father (Christopher Eccleston).
Asante doesn’t skimp on the sentimental value of this historical setting, especially when the action switches from the grey streets of Berlin to the even more colourless interiors of the concentration camp that Leyna is eventually ship off to.
The Holocaust will forever be a vulnerable point to probe, which means that despite the quality of the art that reframes it. It is bound to provoke a reaction. The same principles that apply to killing a pet or parents dying on-screen – and here Asante uses it as an environment of conflict and contrast.
This contrast pervades every element; each relationship has a built-in conflict. That nudges each partner into opposite directions, especially when it comes to the central pair’s contentious connections with their single parents. And how their individual hard-work – from his father to her mother. That to create a better future for their children ultimately back-fires on them in unexpect fashions.
It’s this idea of surviving at all costs that rings true in this narrative – despite being explore in hundreds of other World War II dramas before. But being paire with such a superficial fling dulls this drama into melodramatic tedium. The pair’s actions, once blind by affection, are simply too predictable and frivolous to really make us care. If they do or don’t stick together – there’s nothing electric or evocative about their secret affair, despite how taboo it seems on paper. MacKay and Stenberg provide reliable screen presences. But the way their mismatch liaison is play out never quite transcends the grim reality with which it’s foreground in.
This disconnect between their trite infatuation and the global war. Which acts as the catalyst for their meeting is aggravate by the film’s soap-opera visual surface
Where soft-lighting and unmark costumes – somewhat emulating period dramas of the past. Scrubs any sense of real devastation, despite the amount of clich scenes of John Doe’s being pick off in firing lines that come our way. It’s too glossy, too clean and when anchore by such equally shallow coming-of-age romance, doesn’t really amount to much.
Where Hands Touch is a disappointing and sketchy depiction of a tragic romance during one of history’s darkest periods. Which features two chief characters who individually provide intriguing basis’ for different.
And more ground – stories to be told through their singular viewpoints. It isn’t the implausibility of the script which causes this film’s failure. It’s the inability to create complex or practical characters from these fragments of reality. Despite what the controversy may say, it’s the believability of the romance that breaks this film, not the romance itself.
Asante has developed intriguing romance and dramas within tangible political and historical contexts before. And despite my thoughts on this film. I hope she continues to keep making movies and telling stories the way she wants to. Every director can have an occasional misstep. It’s how they build and use it to make their next piece of art that truly defines great directors, and I believe Asante will make this happen.
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, violence/disturbing images, sexuality and language)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed By: Amma Asante
Stars: Abbie Cornish, Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay
Written By: Amma Asante
In Theaters: Sep 14, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Dec 6, 2018
Runtime: 122 minutes
Studio: Vertical Entertainment
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR WHERE HANDS TOUCH
The film gives us elements of melodrama and also of epic – yet there is also something a little uncomfortable about it.
In the end it feels like a school play, and not a very good one.
Where Hands Touch is a coming of age story, a saga of war, and a heart-rending love story about a forbidden romance that defied the odds against survival in a living hell.
Asante usually excels at sharing stories audiences haven’t seen before, so it’s unfortunate that this one feels so dully familiar.