If you haven't seen footage of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's honorary Emmy Award-winning tour of the White House in 1962, it's worth googling so you can admire how accurately Natalie Portman delivers the First Lady's breathy voice and stiff posture.
Many commentators believe Portman's name should already be engraved on the Best Actress statue, and she's undoubtedly a top contender for the February Oscars ceremony. Portman nails Jackie Kennedy's unusual private-school accent and poised wide smile, but it's how she captures her steely strength and intelligence that elevates her performance beyond imitation.
The simple title
implies a traditional biopic, but this is far from it. The story is centred around the days leading up to and immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the role his wife plays in planning his funeral (based on Lincoln's) and creating the Camelot legacy, all while managing her pain and grief.
It's the perfect moment around which to build a character study, due to its inherent drama and because it's when Jackie makes it clear she'll no longer be used as a pawn in the ambitions of others.
We're taken through the traumatic week through the device of an interview with an unnamed reporter a week after JFK's death, modelled on an interview Jackie gave LIFE journalist Theodore H. White. This allows an acerbic, grieving and chain-smoking Jackie to set the record straight on the Kennedy's short reign in the White House and share her thoughts on the press, all while taking us through the intimate moments of that past week.
We also see a troubled Jackie in conversations with her priest (John Hurt) as she reconciles her husband's death, issues in their marriage and her faith - based on information screenwriter Noah Oppenheim took from letters Jackie wrote to her priest in the months after her husband's death.
On a lighter note, there's the delightful re-enactment of Jackie's famous tour of the White House, with director Pablo Larrain going to extreme lengths to achieve authenticity. He had a set built to mirror the White House interior to perfection, and if you look closely you will see footage from the original 1962 tour edited in.
Dramatic licence has been required to capture the emotional impact of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 - most obviously in the personal moments when Jackie walks through the empty White House rooms on her return to Washington, showers off her husband's blood, and spends time with her children.
But it's when Jackie stands up for herself that fascinates, and how among the pills and vodka, that Jackie, assisted by her dedicated secretary (Greta Gerwig in a superb supporting role), finds the strength to defy her husband's family and staff and send off her "heroic" husband in the manner she sees fit - the memorable eight-block procession that brought Washington and the world to a standstill.
has a few less-convincing scenes (mostly with Billy Crudup as the reporter) but the ambitious non-linear narrative and almost grating soundtrack keep us gripped. The decision to end with the most horrific moment is of course a clever, emotive move - although by the time it arrives you feel like a voyeur imposing on a couple's personal tragic moment.
Portman and Larrain have done a terrific job presenting a complex, conflicted and often-contradictory character, who struggled at times to be the person others wanted her to be. If Larrain's intention was to provide a bigger and broader sense of this iconic woman, then Jackie succeeds. More than likely Portman will too; come awards season.
Verdict: Portman is excellent and the narrative daring.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Pablo Larrain
Running Time: 99 mins
Rating: M (Violence, offensive language and content that may disturb)