Every once in a while an acting performance comes around that is so strong and powerful it transcends the actual movie that the performance appears in despite any shortcomings that the film may have itself. William Hurt's role in The Yellow Handkerchief is one of those performances. Playing ex-con Brett Hanson, Hurt makes this otherwise unlikable character into a fascinating study of anger management and a broken man trying to put the pieces of his life back together. In fact, that is the theme that drives the plot of the film, broken people helping each other to get their lives back on track. It's no coincident then that the backdrop of the film is a post-Katrina Louisiana, brining home the idea of helping broken people by setting the drama in a broken community like the New Orleans area post-Katrina. In fact, the movie is actually a road-trip picture wrapped up in a redemption and coming-of-age story that focuses on four lost souls and how they help each other to fix their own lives.
The story is told in two separate timelines, one that follows Brett in present day as he is released from prison and attempts to make his way back to his long-lost love, May played with passion and heart by Maria Bello. The other timeline features flashbacks to how Brett and May met, their troubled love affair, the events that led him to prison and the aftermath of his arrest. Also effective in the film is the use of Brett's traveling companions, two teenagers named Martine and Gordy played by Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne, respectively. Martine and Gordy are also lost souls but it is their existence and interaction with Brett that is the catalyst for the action in the film. It is through his experience traveling with the teenagers that Brett is able to put his life in perspective and visa versa. What's interesting is that it becomes very important for Martine and Gordy to help Brett reunite with May, encouraging for him to find her. It's as if they believe if they can help this broken man, who is as broken and lost as they are then perhaps there is hope for there own confused lives. This acts as a wonderful metaphor for post-Katrina New Orleans and a great message for the film ... if you help your fellow man you are actually helping yourself because we are all one.
The film begins by introducing us to hardened ex-con, Brett Hanson, brilliantly played by William Hurt, as he is being released from prison. Brett wanders into a coffee shop where he meets two young teenagers, Martine and Gordy, portrayed by "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne ("The Good Shepard"), respectively. Martine is attractive yet shy and after being neglected by both her Father and boyfriend decides to leave town. Gordy, who is an awkward young man and perhaps a bit slow, clearly has a crush on Martine and is more than happy to give her a lift out of town in his convertible. The two offer Brett a ride and soon the three strangers begin a journey together across the devastated post-Katrina Louisiana landscape. As the three travel together they begin to know each other better and Brett starts to open up about his past, how he got to prison and the love of his life that he lost along the way.
Her name is May, played perfectly by Maria Bello, and she and Brett had a life together long ago that we see unfold in flashbacks. We learn of both Brett and May's tough past, the passion that brought them together and the tragedy that tore them apart. After hearing about May and learning that Brett is unsure if he should try to reunite with her after all his time in prison, Martine and Gordy decide that they have to help Brett find her no matter what. Reluctant, Brett heads off with the teenagers to try to find his lost love. Along the way the three strangers and the devastated Louisiana landscape will affect each other in ways that they didn't expect bringing them closer together and healing their pain in a way. Finally, fearing that May will no longer want him after so much time and all that he's done to hurt her, he writes her a letter stating that he is coming to find her and that if she wants him back to raise the yellow sail on her boat that sits out side her home. When their journey ends and they reach Brett's home they can not find the yellow sail, but do discover dozens of yellow handkerchiefs tied up like a sail, indicating that May received the letter and is waiting for Brett's return.
The movie was shot before Stewart became a household name from the "Twilight" franchise and it is interesting to see her work here. She is perfect for the part, quiet, vulnerable, attractive, sad, hard, wild and a bit unpredictable. Her performance is solid opposite Oscar Winner William Hurt but does begin to crack in the third act. Eddie Redmanyne gives a really interesting performance as Gordy, and I really liked his interpretation of the character as a spastic, but scared kid. Maria Bello is excellent as the hardened May who seemed to have had some bad experiences before she meets Brett and is reluctant to his charm but ultimately gives in to their passion. But it is William Hurt's performance that really makes this film work. His character is so multi-layered that it is fascinating to watch this mans difficult life unfold on the screen. Hurt has to at the same time embody rage, regret, remorse, sympathy and humor and does it in such an organic way that it really makes the character endearing to the audience. Director Udayane Prasad does a great job with the pacing of the film and making the hurricane torn background look both sad and luscious at the same time. The script by Erin Dignam could be missing some punch but the intriguing characters and brilliant performances make up for any shortcomings. In the end, The Yellow Handkerchief is a touching and sad, yet uplifting and charming independent drama that will captivate you with its strong performances and important message of love and redemption.