Headed Home, Along A Long Ribbon Of Road

Kristen Stewart, William Hurt, Eddie Redmayne

hide captionLife Is A Highway: Wayward teen Martine (Kristen Stewart, left) takes a road trip through Louisiana with her friend Gordy (Eddie Redmayne, right) and an ex-con (William Hurt) in search of the girl he left behind.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

The Yellow Handkerchief

  • Director: Udayan Prasad
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 102 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, some violence, language and thematic elements.

With: William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne, and Maria Bello

You'd call The Yellow Handkerchief's story — of teenagers helping an ex-con reconnect with the girl he left behind — a wispy little road-trip romance if it hadn't proved so damn sturdy through the years.

A bit of southern folklore first recounted by Pete Hamill in a 1971 New York Post column called "Going Home," the tale went on a road trip of its own, with variations cropping up on TV (starring James Earl Jones as the ex-con), at the top of the Billboard charts ("Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree") and even halfway around the world in Japan (Yoji Yamada's The Yellow Handkerchief, winner of the first-ever Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture) — all before the decade was out.

U.K.-based director Udayan Prasad's new take on the saga of the titular hankie is less a remake of those earlier versions than a reconsideration, set in post-Katrina Louisiana and filled with characters who've been buffeted and blown astray by their own private tempests.

It is, in fact, on the eve of yet another torrential storm that ex-con Brett (William Hurt) emerges from six years in prison, looking spacey and disoriented until steadied by the taste of a cold brew in a local diner. He watches two teenagers drift towards each other — 15-year-old sexpot Martine (Kristen Stewart), looking for a way to make her ex-boyfriend jealous and settling on dweebily insecure Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) because he has a car. A sudden squall brings Brett into the car, too, and the rest of the film is little more than them wending their way towards New Orleans though a lush, crocodile-infested but otherwise near-deserted landscape.

Screenwriter Erin Dignam doles out information in conversational snatches as the director soaks up ambiance and bides his time. With Brett's history providing tension — the circumstances of his criminal past and tempestuous romance with May (Maria Bello) won't come out in flashbacks for more than an hour — and Gordy's erratic behavior keeping things weird (the kid desperately needs Ritalin), the characters will gradually open up to each other and to the camera. But this road trip's no race. Its destination isn't going anywhere, and for a time, it seems the characters aren't either.

Not that they're less-than-intriguing company. Redmayne is hugely persuasive as a redneck geek — you'd never guess he's a Brit with credits in classical theater — and he proves an offbeat but interesting match for Stewart, who made Yellow Handkerchief before either of her Twilight flicks. Without werewolves and vampires to distract her, she proves a reasonably nuanced ingenue.

While it was doubtless her presence that got the film picked up for distribution, it's Hurt who anchors things — solid, quiet, impassive, resolute and so still at times that he almost seems to have taken root. After years of supporting roles, it's gratifying to see him carrying a film again.

He's let down by the film's conclusion, which owes more than it should to Tony Orlando, and is far too tidy for a story so swept by errant passions. Brett, having provided ballast and support for everyone else, is required to twist briefly in the emotional winds, and Hurt makes the twisting as graceful as can be. But you can't entirely buy it — if only because for two hours, he's seemed unlikely to be blown off course by anything short of a hurricane.

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