Jackie a mesmerising portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Pablo Larrain's biopic Jackie is a kaleidoscope of real and imagined details about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, galvanised by a haunting performance from Natalie Portman, that does justice to the legacy of the former US first lady, writes Damon Smith

Natalie Portman in Jackie, a bravura portrait of a wife and mother struggling to come to terms with sudden loss while publicly remaining strong

TOWARDS the conclusion of Chilean director Pablo Larrain's unconventional biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy, the former first first lady muses on the celebrity that consumed her.

"I never wanted fame," she responds coolly. "I just became a Kennedy."

That feeling of impotence in the eye of a media storm informs many pivotal scenes in Jackie, a bravura portrait of a wife and mother struggling to come to terms with sudden loss while publicly remaining strong for her children and the American people.

Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim sensitively imagines grief behind closed doors to piece together events before and after the fateful motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22 1963. Scenes of Jackie trembling with shock as she wipes make-up and her husband's blood from her face in the aftermath of the shooting are horribly compelling, as is the moment she must break the devastating news to her two children, skirting nimbly around the horrible, brutal facts.

"A very bad man hurt Daddy," she tells five-year-old daughter Caroline. "Daddy would come home if he could. But he can't. He has to go to heaven."

In order to bring these fragmented memories into focus, Larrain employs a jarring framing device. Journalist Theodore H White (Billy Crudup) visits the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a few days after the assassination to interview Jackie (Natalie Portman). From the outset, Jackie attempts to gain a semblance of control she never had in the White House.

"You understand that I will be editing this conversation?" she tells Theodore. "Just in case I don't say exactly what I mean."

Gradually, she relates her version of events, including the blood-spattered rush to hospital where she is joined by Jack's brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).

While Jackie and the rest of the world mourn her beloved Jack (Caspar Phillipson), Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is hurriedly sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in front of his wife Lady Bird (Beth Grant) and aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella).

"A first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It's inevitable," Jackie laments.

Larrain's film is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of real and imagined details, galvanised by Portman's haunting embodiment of a widow in emotional isolation. She effortlessly captures the breathless vocal mannerisms, clawing at our hearts in centrepiece sequences that remind us of the merciless ebb and flow of power on Capitol Hill.

"It's been just one week and already they're treating him like some dusty old artefact, to be shelved away," despairs Jackie, fearing the memory of her husband will be lost in time like so many of his predecessors.

The colourful and complex mosaic of Larrain's vision ensures that the woman who stood proudly beside JFK won't be forgotten.

JACKIE (15, 100 mins) Drama/Romance. Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Max Casella, Richard E Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Caspar Phillipson. Director: Pablo Larrain

RATING: 7.5/10

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