December 16, 2011
“The biggest disease today,” Mother Teresa is supposed to have said, “is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” Mother Teresa may have been referring primarily to the kind of people she ministered to, people who are poor and disfranchised, but the problems she identified can affect people of all kinds. Three people who are suffering from the “disease” of feeling cut off from any human community are the princpal characters in The Yellow Handkerchief , a 2008 film loosely based on a story by Pete Hamill.
These folks are Brett Hanson (William Hurt), who has just been released after a six-year term in prison; Martine (Kristen Stewart), a 15-year-old girl who has wandered away from her inattentive, single father and her friendless life; and Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), a Native American teenager who is on an aimless odyssey. Martine hitches a ride with Gordy after being rejected by a boy who had taken advantage of her, and Brett, who meets the pair chance, joins them on the first leg of his trip back to New Orleans to find his former wife, May (Maria Bello). May, a beautiful but solitary woman bound to the waterways of New Orleans, had married Brett after overcoming what might have been more sensible instincts, and he divorced her as a way of freeing her after the incident that landed him in prison.
This was an odd trio in that Gordy was attracted to Martine, who regarded him as eccentric and immature, and Brett — although he was protective of the teenagers — considered them only as a means to an end, namely returning to New Orleans to find out if May would accept him after the callous way he had left her. As they continue to travel together, however, the three gain more and more insight into each other’s psyches and problems and find that in their isolation and their desire to be “a part of something” they are more alike than they had imagined.
This film was shot against the background of post-Katrina Louisiana. Besides being visually interesting, the grim landscapes and the devastation provide metaphors for loneliness on the one hand and a longing for rebirth on the other.
In spite of Hurt’s persona, this is a true ensemble piece in which he, Stewart, Redmayne, and Bello give credible and sympathetic performances.