****1/2 (out of five)

Australian Release Date: 12 January 2017

Jackie, a film about the preparations for John F. Kennedy’s funeral as experienced by his widow Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman), is a relentlessly sad hundred minutes, a close-up dissection of one person’s intensely painful grief combined with unique, almost unimaginable pressure. Fuelled by a baroque string-heavy score by Under The Skin maestro Mica Levi, the film, directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda) has almost unbearable extra resonance in these waning days of the Obama administration. As in this film, (at least I feel like) we are in mourning for the loss of a kindly, wise father, and scared of the brash, unpredictable one waiting on the doorstep.

Larrain and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Captain Fantastic) shot the film on Super 16mm, instantly giving it a grain (and aspect ratio) to complement the period. They are aided by astonishingly effective production and costume design, and by Portman’s tremendous performance.

It can’t have been easy. Being confined to the hours between her husband being shot and seeing him put in the ground (outside of a framing device, an interview with a reporter a week later), Portman’s Jackie is not just in grief but in shock. She’s drinking, popping pills and smoking a million cigarettes. More than anything, she is alone. The next President is sworn in in front of her while she still has her husband’s blood on her face, the Secret Service think her plans for a funeral are an insane risk; essentially, her existence in the White House is a burden to a lot of men in suits who’d prefer the grieving, strong-willed widow to just float away quietly.

She will not. Constantly referencing the three other presidents murdered in office, she insists on a State Funeral to rival a British Monarch’s coronation (or, much more specifically, Lincoln’s own funereal procession). Her motivations are complex and vexing to anyone who isn’t her, being everyone – even Bobby Kennedy, one of her only allies, and played admirably by Peter Sarsgaard. She has one other true ally, her Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, showing not one iota of Brooklyn hipsterism) but Nancy’s a girl’s name, and this is a man’s world. Even the journalist interviewing her, and trying as hard as he can to be empathetic (Billy Crudup), cannot help but reveal the underlying, inbuilt, horrendously demeaning sexism of the time.

The themes are big but the focus is tight as a drum; Larrain and Fontaine keep their nearly-square, unyielding frame tight on Jackie’s face, on her limbs, at one point – somehow achingly revealingly – her seemingly fat-free, spiny back while she has a shower, the first since the event that shook America and the world. The water runs over that nobbled back, that tight, white skin, that tiny frame, awash with her husband’s blood that remains matted in her stylish dark hair.

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