As the world’s media pore over another fashion-conscious woman in the White House, Pablo Larraín’s drama, focusing on John F. Kennedy’s widow during the period of his assassination, feels timely.

 Debbie Stowe

The eponymous First Lady is played by Natalie Portman, and she is as central to the film as the title suggests. We feel the ghost of JFK throughout, but in the flesh he appears only fleetingly: it’s Jackie whom our business is with, and a captivating Portman is barely off the screen.

Her masterful and mature performance is intensified by UK composer Mica Levi’s unsettling score, which reflects the new widow’s overwhelmed state of mind.

A British soundtrack, a Chilean director and largely French locations – it’s not the all-American treatment one would expect for a US icon like Mrs. Kennedy. But this helps avoid any star-spangled reverence for the famous family and the Camelot mythology that surrounds them, allowing the movie to approach the subject fresh.

The film jumps around in time, between a stilted 1962 televised tour of the White House, the infamous Dallas assassination and its immediate aftermath, the run-up to the funeral, and an interview a week after JFK’s death that Jackie gave with Life magazine, in a bid to shape the couple’s truncated legacy.

It’s a fractured and disorienting narrative – a suitable vehicle to depict the psychology of a woman who’s just cradled her dying husband’s head in her lap, his brains blown out by a sniper. That plot and Lee Harvey Oswald’s subsequent killing are side notes, included only for the light they shed on Jackie’s response and her relationships with the people around her.

Chief among those is the one with her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (our knowledge that he was to suffer the same fate as his sibling within five years adds another somber note to the movie), played by Peter Sarsgaard.

Their clashes, her differing views on appropriate funeral and burial arrangements from members of the administration and the Kennedy clan and her feelings of usurpation by the suddenly promoted vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife Lady Bird (Beth Grant, seen sizing up fabric samples for new curtains by the grieving widow as she departs the White House) leave Jackie an isolated figure.

Her sole source of unconditional support is her social secretary and long-term friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), whom we first see encouraging a nervous First Lady to relax and smile as she shows the cameras around her new home. The tour scenes reveal significantly that Jackie was apprehensive and brittle even before the devastating events of November 1963, rather than the poised style icon of legend.

Portman’s FLOTUS is a deep and complex character, broken by her grief and loss – the scenes of her cleaning blood off her face using the same mirror in which she’d touched up her make-up prior to the departure of the Dallas cavalcade, and peeling off gore-stained tights are among the film’s most affecting – but also resolute in her wish to give her husband a suitably grand send-off and shape how they are remembered. Fragile Jackie in her pillbox hats and widow chic holds her own against the hulking suits surrounding her.

But despite her candid conversations (in the days following her husband’s death, we see her opening up both to a priest, John Hurt, and a journalist, Billy Crudup), we still don’t learn a lot about Jackie the woman – it’s only Jackie the widow who emerges. The movie is a striking depiction of grief; a probing of the psychology behind the images so familiar to us of the grassy knoll and blood-spattered pink Chanel suit; and an intriguing imagining of intimate unseen scenes of Mrs. Kennedy and the Camelot coterie.

Director: Pablo Larraín

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

On at: Glendale Studio, Movieplex Cinema Plaza, Grand Cinema & More, Happy Cinema, Cine Globe Titan, Hollywood Multiplex, Cinema City Cotroceni, Cinema City Sun Plaza, Cinema City Mega Mall, Cinema City ParkLake