At cinemas nationwide now

‘This will be your version of what happened,’ says a journalist during an interview with Jackie Kennedy mere days after a sniper’s bullet blew the roof off her world.  It’s perhaps the defining peace time moment of 20th century history,  and the visceral corpse of the event has been reanimated and picked over countless times.  Pablo Larraín  focuses his attention intimately upon the slain president’s quietly iconic wife, and it is something special.

Set in the week after that November day in Dallas in 1963, we see Jackie struggling with her shock and grief, the emerging realisation that she is the standard bearer of JFK’s legacy and myth, and the brutally swift handover of power to Lyndon B. Johnson.  Natalie Portman is astonishing in a role that requires her to contain the brimming hysteria and torment that swallowed her character in Black SwanStéphane Fontaine‘s grainy, gritty camera feels insistent and intrusive; at times utilising techniques that you would normally see in a psychological horror such as extreme close ups and a lingering view of bloodied clothing.  This is aided by a jagged, piercing score by British experimental musician Mica Levi that ventures close to Bernard Herrmann‘s celebrated work with Hitchcock.

It’s an incredible insight into a figure who is often sidelined as the vast majority of the accumulated lore focuses on the male players, JFK, Oswald and Ruby, despite her ringside seat.  ‘I tried to hold his head together,’ she murmurs, in a moment where she lets her guard drop and the sledgehammer weight of trauma sets in.  This is a mother who needs to mourn and tell her kids their father won’t be coming home.  This is a young widow who wants to cocoon herself and grieve, but time and history are already beginning to rap urgently on the door.  Portman handles the disparate gulf between imperious, guarded interviewee and stunned alienation with mannered aplomb.

She is ably assisted by similar restraint from the supporting cast.  Peter Sarsgaard tempers his own grief with pragmatic political acumen as Bobby Kennedy, a man against whom history was also beginning to stalk.  Greta Gerwig‘s mumblecore background is utilised beautifully in a quiet, kind role as Jackie’s friend and aide Nancy Tuckerman, and Billy Crudup as the journalist follows on in similar oleaginous vein from the lawyer he played in Spotlight.

Larraín and writer Noah Oppenheim have tripped away all gloss and sentiment from its subject.  It may prove opaque viewing for those expect a standard biopic, and some may find Portman’s performance overly arch.  It’s not a film to go into lightly and the moment of the assassination itself is handled with a blunt, brutal economy that shocks no matter how many times you’ve seen the Zapruder footage.  It is however, a beautifully realised, and at times bitterly ironic work as the American myth is shattered in pulped brain and splintered bone.