Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s portrait of iconic First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is less a biopic than an intensely intimate character study. There’s a lot of life to cover but like Stephen Frears’ The Queen, which took place in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, Jackie narrows its focus to the week immediately following the assassination of JFK and its devastating impact upon his widow.

Noah Oppenheim’s exquisitely layered screenplay is informed by an interview with Jackie conducted by LIFE magazine journalist Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup but unnamed in the film), and begins with an initially frosty reception between the two, as Jackie lays out her terms, which includes a final edit of the piece.

The ensuing narrative follows an unconventional structure – alternating between Jackie’s distress following the shooting in Dallas, her confiding in a priest (John Hurt), and a recreation of the 1962 documentary on the White House refurbishment which showcases her public persona. It’s the scenes aboard Air Force One in the wake of the tragedy and Jackie’s subsequent return home that resonate most strongly – wandering shell-shocked through an empty White House with her husband’s blood still splashed across her pink skirt and jacket, her grief is palpable.

Natalie Portman is fantastic as Jackie, delivering the kind of transformative, totally convincing performance that blurs the line between actor and character. With her striking physical resemblance and distinctive diction, Portman nails it, personifying a woman both fragile and strong, and fiercely resolute in her desire to preserve the Kennedy legacy.

Frequently shot in extreme close-up, Jackie keeps us in the immediate sphere of its subject and the result is an extremely melancholic experience that runs contrary to expectations for a film of this type. And a haunting score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin) accentuates the funereal tone.

There’s a scene in the aforementioned White House doco where John F. Kennedy states its purpose is to offer a more intimate look at the people behind the legends, and that’s exactly what Larrain’s remarkable film does.

In cinemas: January 12, 2017
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt
Directed by: Pablo Larrain