First, let’s straighten out some misconceptions: The Yellow Handkerchief is not a sequel to The White Ribbon, no matter what wags say. On the other hand, this film does bear an unfortunate resemblance to that deplorable 1970s kitsch-ditty by Tony Orlando and Dawn, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”
No, really. The film is based on Pete Hammill’s 1972 New York Post story entitled “Going Home”—which eventually became a James Earl Jones TV drama—about a convict coming home and wondering if his love will want him back. He suggests she tie a ribbon around their tree so he can either get off the train passing it or ride on into sad eternity. Of course, he finds the oak sunnily festooned. When Orlando’s song came out less than a year later, Hammill sued. Though he lost, the story of a yellow fabric as semaphore booty call became American folklore.
I won’t say how, but this film with fake indie pretensions is another stupid articulation of the myth. It’s too bad: the setup and execution are frequently moving and the cast is sweetly offbeat. Here, Kristen Stewart’s nouvelle stardom meets William Hurt’s (Body Heat, Kiss of the Spiderwoman) passionate but fading actor cred. Throw into the mix Maria Bello as May, playing both sexy and deeply wounded, and the young English actor Eddie Redmayne as Gordy, who’s either a true artist or mildly autistic. Unfortunately, the cast also suggests an alternative universe where Raymond Carver-ish characters could be glamour-pusses too. Propping all this up is director Udayan Prasad’s inquisitive camerawork. Every scene is shot with an eye to tiny details, as if the camera were seeing the world for the first time.
The sad part comes with the requisite sappiness. For 100 minutes, we’re teased with sudden jolts of emotional violence and a setting outside New Orleans post-Katrina, leading us to believe we’re heading for devastating revelations. (Spoiler alert: We’re not.) In the last two minutes you might wish the movie was a storm and not sunshine spilling from Tony Orlando’s Land of Dawn.