In Udayan Prasad's The Yellow Handkerchief, William Hurt is so effortlessly commanding he upstages even the evocative post-Katrina Louisiana backdrops. Somehow, he manages to play his character as stoic, foreboding and mournful all at once.
But at its outset, The Yellow Handkerchief intends to be more of an ensemble piece than a star turn vehicle, so it's off-putting when Hurt's character eventually becomes the film's pivotal focus. Prasad and screenwriter Erin Dignam wind up pushing Hurt's co-stars, and in turn the complexities of the plot, into the periphery. And that's frustrating when the other two actors are as talented and quirky as Kristen Stewart and the British upstart Eddie Redmayne.
Hurt is a taciturn ex-con just sprung from jail; Stewart is a lonely 15-year-old estranged from her father and boys her age; Redmayne plays an awkward teen, prone to babbling non-sequiturs. The three meet at a bus depot diner in Nowheresville, Louisiana and, when bad weather derails Stewart and Hurt's travel, they finagle their way into Redmayne's beat-up car and head for New Orleans, discovering each other, learning lessons.
At the tender age of 19, Stewart embodies the quintessence of adolescent girlhood—with her high, often vexed forehead and wandering, curious eyes, she always comes off as slightly aloof but in secret need of affection. Here, she brings a coquettish sexuality to her scenes with Hurt, whom she idolizes as both a father figure and the epitome of sturdy manhood.
Redmayne is hilarious as he tries to mask his naïveté with bumbling attempts to entice Stewart, who flirts back somewhat but is ultimately indifferent. And as Hurt reflects on his stormy past relationship with Maria Bello, which was also fraught with mixed sexual signals, we keep waiting for a real rapport to develop between him and Redmayne, for Hurt to pass on what he learned from his mistakes with women.
Unfortunately, the movie suddenly turns Hurt's backstory, at first glimpsed only in rapid-fire segments, into an extended flashback, as Hurt dictates and Stewart and Redmayne tearfully listen. While Hurt gives a tour-de-force performance throughout, his co-stars are given less and less to do as the movie nears its end, which, given the true-life grit of its set-up, seems awfully pat.
Opens February 26