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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Feb. 18, 2010 | 10:32 AM

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          Whatever happened to William Hurt?  In the 80’s, he was A-list all the way, balancing challenging material like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Altered States” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” with more broad based crowd pleasers like “Children of a Lesser God” and “Broadcast News”.  He won one Oscar, and was nominated for two more.  He has continued to appear in movies and on stage for the past 20 years, but we haven’t heard much about him until he received another nomination in 2005 for David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.”  Hurt simply seems to be one of those actors who disappear into his roles; he’s so good we take him for granted. 

“The Yellow Handkerchief”, the new film from producer Arthur Cohn and director Udayan Prasad gives Hurt one of his best showcases in years.  As ex-con Brett Hanson, Hurt begins the movie with his first taste of freedom after six years in prison.  His first stop is a small rural Louisiana caf?, where he orders a beer.  The beer is brought out and poured out for him in a frosty mug.  The way Hurt grips that mug, and takes just a few extra seconds to savor that small luxury, speaks volumes.  Poignant moments like this elevate the film’s slight story to a journey well worth taking.

Based on an article written by Pete Hamill in 1971, The Yellow Handkerchief was adapted for film once before.  A 1978 version from director Yoji Yamada won a Japanese academy award and demonstrates the universal themes at play here.  The idea of hanging out a yellow ribbon waiting for a loved one to return has been around for a hundred years, and has been in the news again with the most recent U.S. military entanglements. The new version is set in post-Katrina Louisiana and follows Brett Hanson as he embarks on an unlikely trip with two teenagers (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne) to find the woman he left behind.

The story unfolds gradually through flashbacks, as we learn the story of Brett and May (Maria Bello), and the tragic circumstances that pull them apart.  Now that he’s done his time, Brett has a weary notion of trying to reconnect with May, and his young companions are eager to lend a hand.  We also get the requisite love story between the two teenagers, but this plays like an afterthought compared to what’s going on with the adults.  Redmayne and Stewart both do fine work, but the script doesn’t really take the time to flesh out their characters, particularly in Stewart’s case.  Bello, for her part, is never less than convincing as the fiercely independent May.  She and Hurt have great chemistry, even when their tender moments give way to fits of rage.

Director Prasad knows how to make the most of his locations, and the performances are all buoyed by cinematographer Chris Menges’ expert rendering of the Louisiana setting.  From a rusty old ferry boat as the journey begins to the sights of abandoned homes and FEMA trailers as the group finally end up in New Orleans, the movie pays close attention to the details that make the bayou unique.  The lush production values are a hallmark of any Arthur Cohn produced picture, and fans of his work should also note footage from his 1972 classic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis playing on a motel TV at one point.  The movie also features an effective atmospheric score from Eef Barzelay (formerly of alt-country band Clem Snide) and a well-chosen regional soundtrack.

Ultimately, the movie belongs to Hurt, and it’s a pleasure to see a great actor at the top of his game.  His 80’s celebrity might pale in comparison to the hysteria currently surrounding Kristen Stewart (a mere mention of “The Yellow Handkerchief” on twitter was enough to get me followed by a rabid Stewart fan), but she could do worse than to aspire to Hurt’s career longevity.

“The Yellow Handkerchief” was filmed in 2008, but is only now receiving a U.S. theatrical release.  It opens in Los Angeles on February 26th.

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