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The mystery queens of

Camelot and Buckingham

Caspar Phillipson and Natalie Portman star as John F. Kennedy and his wife in the film Jackie.

A remarkable new film reminds the world of Jackie Kennedy's coolly calculated legacy

We have always loved Jackie Kennedy, the first lady of Camelot. She was such a convenient image for the mythology of the Kennedy administration's brief shining period of hope. That pink Chanel suit. That pillbox hat. Those white gloves. That dark bouffant hairstyle. We didn't need to know what was beneath the perfect and memorable surface. In fact, it was better maybe that we didn't – not completely anyway.

We like our icons to be like flat-screen TVs, flashing mesmerizing images at us as we sit placidly on a sofa, taking them in, idolizing them. This is especially true for female icons: Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. They impose themselves on us with their beauty and style and recognizable look. And in the quid pro quo of popular culture, we impose our assumptions on them. We can create what we want about who they really are, what they think, what they represent.

In the new movie Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larrain attempts to upend that tacit relationship between icon and observer. We see glimpses of the Jackie behind the clothes and the pretty face. And the question becomes whether we like her or not. The doubt that the movie encourages seems almost sacrilegious. It's like finding out that the Virgin Mary had bad breath.

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Natalie Portman plays the title role in Pablo Larrain’s new film Jackie.

Jackie Kennedy – not so much Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the woman who compromised the myth by marrying the Greek tycoon – has been as strong as an American society brand, such as Tiffany's, for more than 50 years. Larrain alludes to that immediate recognition of her with the first-name-only title of his film. Jackie was an Oprah, a Madonna, a Beyoncé, before we fully appreciated the power of celebrity culture.

People who knew Jackie, even a little bit, have always recognized that the public image of her didn't match up perfectly with the human person. "She was very shrewd. Very smart. She was a sharp assessor of people, of personalities and their motives. She did not have blinders on," says Edward Klein, a bestselling Kennedy biographer. "She was very self-conscious about her fame. Not only did she want to craft an image of her husband but also of herself," he says in a phone interview from New York. "She was tough and calculating, and I don't mean that in a negative way. She had a very strong appreciation of public image and the need to protect it."

This is the complicated woman we see in Jackie. Larrain brings us in to extreme close-ups on Natalie Portman, who plays the title role largely (and brilliantly) with the expressions on her face, her whispery accented voice and tentative smile. We are so close to her, so in her face, you feel you can almost smell her sweet perfume mixed with acrid cigarette smoke. Standing in the shower, with her husband's blood dripping off her body as she washes after that fateful day, she is naked, stripped of her couture armour and helmet hair. And that is the point of this movie. Larrain is showing us the determined, despairing woman's effort to seal the three and a half years of the Kennedy time in the White House into memorable imagery, into myth. That he is doing it in the greatest myth-making medium around – film – is amusingly ironic.

The real Jackie Kennedy visits the National Gallery of Canadain Ottawa while her husband and then-prime minister John Diefenbaker held talks.

The movie is framed by Jackie's long conversation with Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup) at Hyannis Port, one week after the assassination in Dallas.

It was here that Jackie floated the idea of Camelot. And it is clear that she was the director, the ghost writer even, of that interview, determining what could be quoted and how the myth making would begin. Portman's wily Jackie, who flips from teary to steely, from poetic to pointed, throws out any notion that she was a faun-like creature in need of protection.

In flashbacks to scenes before and after the assassination, we begin to see her understanding of life as art, as a projection for others to consume. In the televised White House tour in 1962, she is nervous in front of the cameras. But she would soon understand the power of the lens. As she prepared to leave Air Force One after her husband's assassination, it is suggested she change from her blood-spattered pink Chanel suit. She refuses. And nor will she consent to disembarking from a back door. "Let them see what they've done," she says of the photographers who would be documenting the moment for the public.

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy leave a news conference in New York on July 11, 1960.

"I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy," Portman's Jackie says to a priest (John Hurt) as she struggles to come to terms with the loss. But this hint of a demure, innocent debutante, raised to do little more than to marry well is part of the ambiguity Larrain presents about his subject. At another point in the conversation with the priest, she confides that the funeral spectacle "wasn't for Jack and his legacy. It was for me." In that comment, one can read her understandable need for the public ritual as a way to bring closure. One can also read Larrain's unflattering suggestion of vanity.

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In that black veil, she embodied what one writer described as "superhuman nobility." She knew the power of clothing. And in a way, that veil was a metaphor for the celebrity she had come to possess. It caused her to stand out. One instantly recognized her in a crowd, and yet one could barely make out the woman behind it.

The brilliance in the film is that we're left wondering if such canny calculation is admirable or suspicious. It's not as though we are unaccustomed to strategic iconography – consider Madonna and all her tireless image-making. It's just that as a sixties-era wife who never thought she needed to hold a political opinion different from her husband's, as an icon we believed to have been passive, shaped by the men in her life and the public's fascination with her style, Jackie as shrewd manipulator of history takes some adjustment. We don't like the idea of ambitious political wives.

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy attend a dinner in Washington on May 11, 1962.

In a scene near the end of the film, Jackie is in the back seat of a limousine, being driven away from the White House, and as the car passes through the streets – where no crowds assemble, reinforcing the loss of her power as first lady – she sees men unloading mannequins for a store. They are all Jackie dolls, all with those pillbox hats, all with that bouffant hairstyle, in those boxy suits.

She doesn't smile. She simply looks out her rear window with a blank expression. Is she pleased with the power of the iconic image she created? Several times in the film, she says that she understands the frequent disconnect between imagery and reality. Was she clever enough to know that the power of Jackie the icon, the mannequin in the good suits, would far outlast the brief attention she had in real life as first lady? Was this a calculation to outlive her husband in more ways than one? That, we cannot know.

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