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REVIEW: 'Jackie' is worthy depiction of American figure

Natalie Portman (center) Peter Sarsgaard (right) and Caspar Phillipson (left) in "Jackie," showing in Duluth on Friday. imdb.com1 / 2
Natalie Portman is magnetic in her channeling of Jackie Kennedy. imdb.com2 / 2

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's mesmerizing "Jackie" is an intimate and existential exploration of one of the 20th century's most iconic figures, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The spiritual, somber and deeply intellectual script by Noah Oppenheim delves into Jackie's experience during and immediately after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963.

Larrain weaves a mesmerizing cinematic spell hand-in-hand with star Natalie Portman, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Mica Levi. Shot on Super 16mm film, the camera squares directly on Jackie's face at eye level, peering into her eyes, close enough to nearly feel her breath. Eerily beautiful cellos and violins swoon like sirens and moans on the soundtrack, woozy and undulating like Jackie on a grief bender blasting the "Camelot" soundtrack LP throughout the West Wing.

Portman verily channels Jackie herself, in the comportment of her face, eyes, mouth and posture. She apes the flat voweled patrician accent well enough, but it's the physical performance that summons the ghost of the first lady. Emotionally, we can only imagine what Jackie's experience was in the days after JFK died in her lap during that Dallas motorcade, but Portman pours her primal yet poised emotional self into Oppenheim and Larrain's vision of a highly visible woman suddenly finding herself bereft, alone, traumatized, searching for meaning and purpose.

The script interweaves several different interactions as framing devices to structure the overarching plot, which includes the death and funeral arrangements. A conversation with a journalist (Billy Crudup) reveals a Jackie who is highly aware and in control of her own image as the most famous widow in the world. A walk with a priest (John Hurt) shows her at her most confessional, questioning God, life's meaning and existence. There's also a re-creation of Jackie's televised tour of the White House, pre-assassination, that demonstrates her knowledge of history and care for special, beautiful things, and how she came to understand the power of media images.

Her nervous TV presentation is in contrast to the frazzled yet self-possessed woman who refuses to hide the truth about her husband's brutal murder. She insists on wearing her blood-spattered pink suit after the shooting, a manifestation of her trauma. She takes her children by the hand to their father's casket in front of the world's cameras, showing the tragic loss of their father.

It's not necessarily a political film — JFK is only there in essence (he's played fleetingly by Caspar Phillipson) — but a hauntingly personal one. It's a story about trauma, loss and grief, but also the careful creation of an American mythic icon. A student of presidential history from her careful restoration of the White House, Jackie is highly attuned to the process of presidential myth-making, and the power of images and symbols in that storytelling. Creating that myth offers her purpose in those mournful days, as her last gift to her husband.

Portman is simply magnetic in the role, but it's a performance that works when in concert with all the other elements of the filmmaking — cinematography, production design, costume design, score, supporting performances. It's entirely of a piece; a perfect film because all of the details are perfect together. But far greater than any meticulously artful style is the beating heart of the woman who was known simply as "Jackie."

'Jackie'

• 4 out of 4 stars

• Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant

• Directed by Pablo Larrain

• Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

• Rated R for brief strong violence and some language.

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