An artful execution, as well as a painfully good performance from Natalie Portman, lifts this biopic beyond the standard tropes.

Natalie Portman As Jackie Kennedy
Queen Amidala never had it so good…

I’m not one to usually mythologise the Kennedy era, it was not my scene to begin with, and the good work Kennedy did as a President required Johnson to do all the actual heavy lifting. But that’s neither here nor there. Many films have been made (for theatres and TV) placing the events of the JFK administration, before, during and after the assassination. But this film, from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain is a more focused character study on Jackie Kennedy, and is buoyed by Natalie Portman’s performance, which will doubtlessly be studied for years to come.

The details of it, and of the central character (and historic figure), are fairly open to interpretation, in that there’s a woman here, born into wealth and privilege, who married into even more wealth and privilege, who in turn had to endure and suffer the most extraordinary hardships along the way. So you see this woman of remarkable privilege coping with having at least part of it taken from her, and there is an element of lacking sympathy for the plight. Reflections told in flashback are set in an estate, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and you don’t think that given the immeasurable loss she’s suffered, she’s at the lowest possible ebb. Part of the success of the film is seeing how someone who seldom had things taken from them copes when such an event transpires; check your privilege, indeed.

Jackie works as an intimate character study, based on what you could only suppose is a degree of creative license, speculation, coupled with historic research. It is true to what one might only assume is the spirit of history – we see Jackie smoke, get drunk and stumble around the residence in the aftermath of the assassination, knowing that the world she entered no longer exists; her life as she knew it, over.

I’ve described Portman’s performance as being painfully good. There’s a couple of qualifiers for this – one, the degree to which she nails the verbal peculiarities of Jackie’s way of speaking; both the public and private, including the airy, breathy upper crust debutante voice she put on for her TV special about the White House. And, not being one to shy from hyperbole, I just wanted to point out that there are moments of profound anguish expressed throughout the piece. These are in scenes you’d expect – there she is in what can only be imagined as the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, sobbing as she shakily wipes his blood from her face as she looks in the mirror. And then in how the story is told partially in flashback where she gives an interview to a nameless Life journalist (Billy Crudup) and has a candid conversation with a priest (John Hurt), and the sadness and grief is replaced by steely-eyed anger and frustration.

It’s a performance which is quite profound, powerful and measured, and there are moments when Portman looks genuinely pained to be a part of it. I don’t think this kind of acting can be taught; there’s something other worldly about it, the levels of palpable, unpretentious and raw human emotion – think Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. You see it, and wonder why – or how – anyone else really bothers.

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