Pablo Larrain's Jackie begins on a mournful musical note then gets sadder from there. This intimate, highly speculative profile of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, chiefly set only days after America's promise lay splattered in her lap, couldn't have a happy ending.
Instead, Larrain spins a tale of dignified anguish and calculations less sympathetic. Anchored by Natalie Portman's uncanny impersonation — wispy voice, aristocratic posture — Jackie fascinates and frustrates, sometimes at once. We can't be certain any of her actions here are true. Some don't seem likely.
Noah Oppenheim's screenplay is inspired by an interview Kennedy gave Life magazine journalist Theodore H. White one week after her husband's murder. Billy Crudup takes the inquisitor role, billed only as "the Journalist" and clearly Kennedy's pawn in their words skirmish. She and White were acquaintances in real life but strangers here, creating tension that isn't always flattering but is effective.
Larrain continually flips between three time frames: a televised tour of the White House in 1961, introducing America to executive grandeur with a new, vibrant style; the interview at her Hyannis Port mansion; and Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, as usual for a JFK movie but not from this perspective or as graphic. We get a sense of her discomfort in the spotlight, fierce defense of her husband's legacy and that day's shock to her system, respectively.
Some speculations are crushing details so personal they escape curiosity: rinsing off her husband's blood in a shower or smearing it like makeup; telling two children their father is dead; barging into JFK's autopsy.
Other speculations are outright incredible: Would Kennedy really swill wine and martinis while trying on high fashion and listening to the Camelot soundtrack, hours after the president's assassination? Would new first lady Lady Bird Johnson have decorators in the White House the very next day? There's a detour on the way to JFK's funeral to a conversation with a priest (John Hurt) whose vows enable Oppenheim to speak for himself more than his subject.
Larrain's film suggests Kennedy's toying with the Journalist — jumping off the record after the exposing fact — is intended to manufacture the Camelot myth gilding her husband's less-than-one term in office. She sounds uncertain that he accomplished enough to be remembered like a Lincoln and not a Garfield or McKinley, both assassinated footnotes to history.
Oppenheim's version of events is debatable but not Portman's portrayal or Larrain's talent, in his first English language feature after two fact-based dramas (No and Neruda) set in his native Chile. For all its somber notes, Jackie is sturdy filmmaking, its Dallas sequences in particular so crisply staged and edited. Larrain elicits four strong performances besides Portman's from supporters Crudup, Hurt, Greta Gerwig as Kennedy's assistant and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy.
But this is Portman's showcase, a performance more daring in some respects than her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan. Whether this role is who Jacqueline Kennedy was doesn't matter when portrayed with such genteel intensity, such image-busting grief. When that opening musical note dives into despair Portman rises, bringing the movie with her.
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Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.