Natalie Port­man ex­quis­ite in “Jackie.”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - R. 100 min­utes. By Ann Hor­na­day

Drama/bi­og­ra­phy.

From the dis­so­nant mi­nor chords of its open­ing mu­sic, “Jackie” puts the au­di­ence on no­tice that this isn’t go­ing to be a com­fort-blan­ket biopic. Those vi­o­lins sound less like mu­si­cal notes than icy shards, and when the pic­ture comes up, we see the film’s ti­tle char­ac­ter, Jac­que­line Kennedy, not serenely swathed in Paris cou­ture or in a prim Chanel suit, but in an un­nerv­ingly tight close-up, red-eyed, sob­bing and on the verge of com­ing un­done.

Rest as­sured, the iconic ver­sion of the 20th cen­tury’s most revered and re­mem­bered first lady is on dis­play in “Jackie.” But in the hands of film­maker Pablo Lar­raín and ac­tress Natalie Port­man, even the most fa­mil­iar im­ages feel strangely re­fracted, simultaneously of a piece with the woman we came to know as Jackie Kennedy and dis­torted be­yond recog­ni­tion.

“I’ve lost track of what was real and what was per­for­mance,” Port­man’s Jackie says at one point, ar­tic­u­lat­ing the car­di­nal themes of a film that seeks both to pay homage to a woman en­dur­ing un­speak­able grief, and to in­ter­ro­gate the Camelot myth she so skill­fully crafted in the wake of that loss.

“Jackie,” which Lar­raín di­rected from a script by Noah Op­pen­heim, begins a week af­ter John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion Nov. 22, 1963, when Jac­que­line con­ducted an in­ter­view for Life mag­a­zine with Theodore White. In the film, the un­named jour­nal­ist, played by Billy Crudup, is a com­pos­ite of White, his­to­rian Arthur Sch­lesinger and au­thor Wil­liam Manch­ester, as well as a group of skep­tics who be­lieved that the pageantry of Kennedy’s fu­neral was out of line with his ac­tual ac­com­plish­ments. The in­ter­view — con­ducted at the Kennedy fam­ily com­pound in Hyan­nis Port — forms the spine of “Jackie,” which tog­gles back and forth be­tween the tap­ing of the “Tour of the White House” spe­cial the first lady filmed in 1961, the events in Dal­las and the days im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion.

What emerges is an un­set­tling, al­most hal­lu­cino­genic study in con­tra­dic­tion: Port­man’s Jackie is soft yet steely, vul­ner­a­ble yet shrewd, pro­pelled by a fierce, un­yield­ing rage, yet su­perbly con­trolled and con­trol­ling. She ex­erts com­plete editorial con­trol over what will and will not ap­pear in the ar­ti­cle.

Af­ter re­call­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion in graphic, emo­tion­ally wrench­ing de­tail, she turns icy: “Don’t think for a sec­ond that I’m go­ing to let you pub­lish that.” And those cig­a­rettes she lights com­pul­sively through­out the af­ter­noon? “I don’t smoke,” she says.

The line gets a rare laugh in a rig­or­ously beau­ti­ful film that’s been exquisitely de­signed and filmed to merge ar­ti­fice with ac­tual footage of both the “Tour of the White House” spe­cial and JFK’s fu­neral. Port­man, her hair swooped into Jac­que­line’s sig­na­ture bouf­fant, her pos­ture per­fectly cap­tur­ing her char­ac­ter’s dancer-like poise, de­liv­ers a per­for­mance for the ages, never flinch­ing as the cam­era moves in for close-ups that be­gin to feel in­tru­sive and un­seemly. When her Jackie fi­nally gives in to grief — which in­cludes the loss of an in­fant son just a few months ear­lier — the viewer might ques­tion whether Op­pen­heim and Lar­raín are be­ing un­for­giv­ably op­por­tunis­tic.

At one point, Port­man stag­gers through the White House, sip­ping vodka and pop­ping seda­tives, smok­ing and try­ing on gowns as Richard Burton trills the ti­tle song from “Camelot.”

Far from gra­tu­itous, these scenes pulse with emo­tion, as Port­man cy­cles through ev­ery beat with fe­ro­cious com­mit­ment and brio.

On its sur­face, “Jackie” is a por­trait of mas­ter­ful style and sto­ry­telling, as one of the world’s most ad­mired first ladies de­ter­minedly so­lid­i­fies her dead hus­band’s legacy. But at its core, it’s about a young, strong, unimag­in­ably fright­ened woman seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to live a life she can fi­nally call her own.

Natalie Port­man as Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie.”

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