Rule No. 1 for sensible filmgoers: Figure out what the movie you’re watching is trying to do, rather than what you expect or want it to do, then proceed accordingly. This is especially important in the case of “Jackie,” because most of us assume we know what a movie that stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy and comes out in Oscar season will look like: Camelot, panoply, history, throngs. Most of us will be wrong.
Directed from Noah Oppenheim’s script by the young Chilean tornado Pablo Larraín — his other 2016 biopic, “Neruda,” is Chile’s foreign-language Oscar entry — “Jackie” is a chamber drama rather than an epic; an impressionistic work of emotional opera rather than a chronological parade. What is this movie trying to do? Simply dramatize everything that can go on inside a woman simultaneously marginalized and revered.
Set in the days and weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, “Jackie” is a character piece in which an essentially powerless supporting player suddenly becomes the architect of her own destiny — indeed, becomes responsible for how the man who married her, showcased her, and cheated on her will be remembered in the popular imagination. Shot by Stephane Fontaine, it’s a film told in close-up — many, many close-ups — with hovering camera lenses and a keening score by Mica Levi that becomes a protean character in its own right.
For the first 15 minutes or so, though, you’re pushed back on your heels. Portman’s Jackie Kennedy is so breathy, so mannered, that the film seems headed for a train wreck before it’s even left the station. Surely the real Jackie didn’t speak like this? A trip to YouTube, where the 1962 White House tour broadcast re-created in the film can be found in its entirety, reminds us that she did. What becomes apparent as “Jackie” rolls on is how much of that public persona was performance — to cover nerves, to live up to the historic role — and how tragedy both liberated the performer and forced her to double down.
There’s a framing device, set in Hyannis, in which a nameless Life magazine journalist — Theodore H. White, as played by Billy Crudup — gently interviews the ex-first lady and she gently but insistently nudges him toward the glib metaphor of Camelot. (The musical had opened on Broadway less than a month after JFK’s election in 1960.) Mostly, though, “Jackie” is set in the immediate aftermath of trauma.
We see the blood on the dress, the skull fragment in her hand. Images we know from photos or grainy news footage acquire the weird weight of drama: the scene aboard Air Force One as Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in, his wife (Beth Grant) and Jackie at his side, the dead president’s body in the next compartment.
At the White House, a power struggle discreetly commences as Johnson and his minions edge the widow toward the door. LBJ’s chief aide, Jack Valenti (Max Casella), has the face of a third-rate mortician (and a future as the creator of the movie ratings system that will grace “Jackie” with an R for brief strong violence and some language).
Jackie’s own aide, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), is a sympathetic sisterly figure; Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is protective, racked with guilt, and cradling his own agenda. The children (Sunnie Pelant as Caroline and twins Aiden and Brody Weinberg as John Jr.) are children. No one wants Jackie to walk with them alongside the funeral cortege in public. Everyone thinks she’s used to doing what she’s told.
All these fine actors are underused in “Jackie” because their characters are secondary to the immediacy of the heroine’s grief and confusion — her coming to grips with her predicament. What’s Jackie’s new role? Is it anything like who she actually is? The movie drifts along the edge of panic, which is a place Natalie Portman has always seemed comfortable (the narcotized fantasy play of her “Star Wars” movies notwithstanding). I started the film convinced the performance was a stunt and an awkward one at that; by the end, I found myself terribly moved by the empathy and complexity of Portman’s portrayal and by the bravery of her creative imagination.
“Jackie” is probably not a movie for mass audiences — too unsentimental, too interior, lacking in the touch of the circus. It may be too strange for even the Academy, although Levi’s thrilling score, built from the deep, woody bass section of the strings where cellist Pablo Casals lived, deserves some kind of medal. When Larraín brings on John Hurt as a wizened and wily old priest, dispensing heartfelt but not exactly doctrinal spiritual advice to the widow, you can feel the movie lifting off into some ecstatic parallel universe of its own.
Of course it’s all fiction; of course it’s a fantasy. So was the public paper doll that obscured the genuine woman beneath, whoever she was. Jackie Kennedy, by which I mean the cultural artifact we called “Jackie Kennedy,” was always theater. “Jackie” the movie, by contrast, is about the sorrow, resentment, and fear — and vanity, and rage, and, finally, strength — of an ingénue thrust violently alone onto center stage.
Directed by Pablo Larraín. Written by Noah Oppenheim. Starring Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 99 minutes. R (brief strong violence, some language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.