Movies

Among Toronto’s thrills: a superb Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie’

Natalie Portman brings heft to Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie”
Toronto Film Festival/AP
Natalie Portman brings heft to Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie”

TORONTO — It’s an indelible image. The nation’s first lady looking dazed and adrift, suddenly transformed from the president’s famously elegant companion to a singular study in grief, her fashionable pink wool suit soiled and smeared with her husband’s blood.

Instead of trying to take on the entire epic story of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” bears down on a handful of days that surrounded John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, reimagining public and private moments from her viewpoint. The movie, which recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (it’s expected to open theatrically in early December), begins at the family compound in Hyannis Port, shortly after JFK’s funeral. Jackie (Natalie Portman) sits on a back patio with a journalist (Billy Crudup) who’s interested in every detail of what happened in Dallas and the power struggle that ensued after she returned to Washington, D.C.

This is no lighthearted recounting of Camelot. The tone is melancholy and piercing, given to unnerving cello blasts that herald something more like a psychological thriller. Call it “Camelot Interrupted.”

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Central to that tone is Portman who perfectly imitates Jackie’s physical grace and softly mannered voice in Larraín’s re-creations of Jackie during “A Tour of the White House” originally filmed by CBS for TV. But the thrill comes in watching Portman rise above imitation to give her character credible heft, as when she defies her mother-in-law — who wants JFK interred closer to his roots — telling Bobby Kennedy that “Brookline is no place to bury a president.”

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Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay undercuts that credibility with tawdry glimpses of grief-stricken Jackie drinking wine, popping pills, and aimlessly wandering the White House in ballgowns and pearls. Luckily, such missteps are few. “Jackie” is no mere rehashing of a much picked-over history. It has something more to say, from the perspective of a woman who hasn’t been fully heard.

Pure poetry

I really wanted to love “A Quiet Passion,” the new Terence Davies movie about Amherst-born poet Emily Dickinson. I’m a big fan of Dickinson and a big fan of Cynthia Nixon, who plays her in the later-life stages of this polished portrait.

But artful words and good intentions aren’t always enough to carry a film, even when the supporting cast includes Keith Carradine and Jennifer Ehle. I was curiously unmoved by “A Quiet Passion,” even as I appreciated its surfaces.

I felt just the opposite about another poetic entry in the Toronto festival lineup: “Paterson.” This may be the most elegant Jim Jarmusch film ever made. It’s for sure the most symmetrical.

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Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, N.J. That’s also an important town in the life and literary work of New Jersey native William Carlos Williams, whose poems inspire the writings of Paterson — the man, not the place. And yes, that’s quite a lot of duality to digest, but it’s nothing compared to the film’s many meditations on twins and copies and the circular rhymes of life.

Jarmusch has long been a master of cinematic poetry (see 1984’s “Stranger Than Paradise”). With “Paterson” he isolates the beauty of a small, seemingly unremarkable life that requires no road trip or manipulation (well, it does have one conveniently expressive English bulldog) to find meaning.

Selfie reverence

Any new Errol Morris film is a cause for celebration. His latest is a celebration of his friendship with the renowned Cambridge-based portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman.

In “The B-Side,” Morris portrays Dorfman’s recent retirement as the end of an era. Once the visual voice of a generation of poets, radicals, and regular people, Dorfman is best known for her large-format Polaroids, and with the camera’s decline she might now be seen as a relic. Except that Morris shows her continued relevance — especially in the age of the selfie, of which she’s taken her share.

Nothing extraordinary happens in this documentary. Now 79, Dorfman mostly reminisces in her studio, pulling oversize photographs out of drawers, revisiting their origins, recounting the days when she sold her portraits for two dollars out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square. But the place is like an attic, albeit with better preservation practices, and Morris gifts us the opportunity to sift through its many treasures while the owner is still very much alive.

Box this

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It wasn’t just that there were two boxing movies screening at the Toronto festival; their titles added to the confusion.

One, “The Bleeder,” stars Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts in the story of Chuck Wepner, the real-life fighter who supposedly inspired “Rocky.” The other, “Bleed for This,” is the tale of Rhode Island’s own Vinny Pazienza, a.k.a. the Pazmanian Devil, who fought his way back from a serious car accident to regain his status as a world champion.

I didn’t catch “The Bleeder.” But I did see Ben Younger’s take on Vinny Paz, convincingly and likably played by Miles Teller. It’s an entertaining effort, and Aaron Eckhart adds considerable presence to the cast, having gained something like 40 pounds to play the role of Vinny’s trainer. The movie takes many liberties with the facts, and I don’t think it captures the level of Pazmania in Providence, or the distinguishing characteristics of the place itself — this could just as easily be Brooklyn or Philly or Newark, the spaghetti and meatballs all look the same.

Maybe that’s not important. Maybe the only thing boxing fans need to know is that their sport is back onscreen in a big way. There will be cheering, and there will be blood.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.