Dir. Udayan Prasad. US. 2008. 103mins.
The American debut of Udayan Prasad (My Son the Fanatic), The Yellow Handkerchief is a visually confident, emotionally bruising road movie about a trinity of lost souls haunted by their past and break free of their restricted lives. The writing never quite matches the extraordinary imagery of Chris Menges. Fortunately, the top-notch cast imbues the work with a precision and sharpness that helps elide over the rough or inchoate ideas.
Produced by Arthur Cohn (Central Station), the movie was unveiled in the Premiere section at Sundance. The movie's rhythms are quiet and observant, and it is a work to be savoured and thought over rather than gulped. An enterprising US distributor should tap into the niche, highly discerning and adult audience.
Furthermore the presence of William Hurt and Maria Bello, combined with the excellent young actors Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne, should pay larger dividends in DVD and ancillaries, particularly urban US centres, the UK and other leading English-speaking markets.
Expanding on a story by American journalist Pete Hamil, screenwriter Erin Dignam intertwines two narratives, a contemporary story set in a Louisiana backwater town that finds thee wildly different people, craggy loner Brett (Hurt), local beauty Martine (Stewart) and odd, manic stranger Gordy (Redmayne) yoked together.
Travelling in Gordy's convertible, they pass through an evocative Southern landscape of open dirt roads and expansive shorelines. The other story is more fragmentary and elusive, charting through flashbacks and Brett's harsh and unsettled memories, his relationship with his wife, May (Bello).
The movie's movement is both physical and psychological, suggesting the different ways the past is superimposed over the present. Unfortunately, the script works too hard to find symmetries between the two parts that denies a more organic and free form flow.
The Yellow Handkerchief is far more effective visually. A two-time Oscar-winner, Menges made his reputation with the low-budget works of Ken Loach. He's very good at creating mood, tempo and conflict through the faces, body gestures and rhythms of his actors.
The early imagery of confinement, like the three caught in the interior of a car or trapped in a cramped motel room, is sharply played off the freedom and uncertainty of the road. A moment between Hurt and Bello in the bayou echoes Menges' work on Andrei Konchalovsky's 1987 Shy People .
Dignam also links her characters to Southern literature. Gordy is clearly a literary descendant of Benjy, the damaged man-child of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury .
'He's young for his age,' Brett says to Martine. He's jittery and nervous and desperate to please Martine. Likewise, she evokes Caddy from the same novel, a gorgeous and rebellious young woman both frightened by and hyper aware of her nascent sexuality.
Following a violent incident, Brett reveals to his young companions that he has just emerged from a six-year prison sentence for manslaughter. In sketching out their alternately tender and unsettling relationship involving a family tragedy, Bello's May becomes a far more distinctive and emotionally detailed character.
Of late, Hurt has done excellent work as a character actor and uncovered a freedom and generosity of expression in works like The History of Violence and Mr Brooks.
He creates a highly convincing physical character, a man beaten down, trapped by fury and anger. At the same time, his work is quiet and recessive, marked only by bursts of violence that underline how volatile or unhinged he is capable of becoming.
Off the heels of her excellent work in Into the Wild , Stewart continues to impress. She has a dancer's lithe, taut body, and she uses it expressively in limning a part of tenderness, regret and hopefulness. She shows a nervy tension in front of the camera, a quickness of feeling and action that serves the part exceptionally well.
The English-born Redmayne (The Good Shepard) has the most difficult part, both showy and somewhat unfocused in the characterization, particularly since his part is the hardest one to get a fix on. The movie's title is not apparent until the closing moments, an act of reconciliation that that ends on a moment of rapture and release.
Arthur Cohn Productions
From a story