Tag: Natalie Portman

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Injokes, backslappery and smugness abound in this terrible Thor adventure

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Dr Jane Foster/Mighty Thor), Christian Bale (Gorr the God Butcher), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Taika Waititi (Korg), Russell Crowe (Zeus), Kat Dennings (Dr Darcy Lewis)

Okay. Part way through this desperately unfunny tonal mess I wondered: if I had to choose would I watch this again, or Thor: The Dark World? I can’t quite believe it, but I’d rather watch that functional, forgettable, mundane film. At least it doesn’t make me angry as it drifts past my eyes. And I say that as someone who loved Thor: Ragnarok. Thor: Love and Thunder is terrible. So, unlike Star Trek, it looks like even numbered Thor films are awful – so at least Thor Five should be a doozy.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in a state of ennui – although that doesn’t stop him restoring his buff form after we last saw him as a coach potato in Avengers: Endgame. He doesn’t know what to do with his life: he has (and I can’t believe the film doesn’t make this obvious joke considering its jukebox score) “lost that lovin’ feelin’”. Will the arrival of bereaved father Gorr (Christian Bale), and his mission to butcher all Gods because they don’t answer your prayers, give him meaning? Or will it be the chance to finally rekindle his love for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when she unexpectantly lands back in his life? However, it’s not the Jane he remembers: unknown to him, she’s dying from cancer, but his old hammer Mjolnir is keeping her alive, transforming her into a female version of Thor.

Thor: Love and Thunder is a bit like attending a victorious Thor: Ragnorak after-show party. Everyone there thinks everything they say is like the funniest thing ever and the air rings to the sound of backs being slapped. It takes everything that it believes worked best in that film and dials it up to eleventy thousand. Waititi doubles down on his quirky, off-the-cuff, shoulder shrugging humour at every turn and you get the feeling that no one once tapped him on the shoulder and said “you know that’s funny to us on set, but are we sure that will be funny in the audience?”

Because, based on the audience I saw it with, it wasn’t. I think I chuckled about three times in the film. Which considering it takes every single bloody opportunity to tell a joke, is damning. Perhaps it fails to land because, unlike in Ragnarok or other Waititi films, its like he’s surgically removed anything emotional or gives a weight to the gags. He’s also sacrificed much of his trademark sweetness. Instead, this is full of incredibly knowing, tip-the-wink gags at the audience, as if trying to say “hey it’s okay, we can’t take this seriously, comic books are all silly, silly shit”.

And you know, that’s fine many people take these things too seriously. But what worked about Thor: Ragnarok was it balanced a quirky sense of humour with genuine stakes and real emotional quandaries. This however is just a tonal mess. We have an opening scene dealing with child death, that shifts swiftly into knock-about farce. A leading character dying of cancer sitting alongside a pair of screaming goats. It is revealed Jane is effectively draining her life source using the hammer (that it is keeping her alive and killing her at the same time). Here’s a chance to explore the cost of heroism and finding a purpose in life (after all isn’t Thor supposed to be depressed? Wouldn’t Jane make a good contrast here?). instead, the film constantly retreats to playing the humour card (worst of all unfunny humour!), as if Waititi perhaps thinks this genre stuff is silly and slightly below him.

Ragnarok allowed moments of impact: this film shits all over any moment of potential emotional reality. Hemsworth’s Thor used to be a guy with a strong moral purpose and seriousness, but allowed to stretch his wings with comedic sharpness. Now he’s a buffoon who interrupts a speech to distraught parents with gags. Any attempt to build an arc of a hero who is internally lonely and searching for purpose is constantly smashed by self-consciously irreverent humour. It says a lot that Thor’s axe Stormbreaker feels as much a character as anyone else – although the film is overly pleased with the gag of the axe being jealous of Thor’s doe-eyes at his old hammer.

The entire film feels like it’s been plotted out in about four minutes. Presumably Waititi was confident “hilarious” off-the-cuff inspiration would solve any problems. Christian Bale struggles manfully with his villain – but it’s like no one gave him the memo that the film was a piss-take. Tedious detours fill the plot – like an un-funny Guardians of the Galaxy cameo at the start, a tiresome trip to an orgy-tastic God planet and the screeching giant goats which feels like a joke whose punchline has been cut. A major plot point about a wish granting Eternity God is suddenly introduced to establish a secret plan for the villain. It’s like no one gave a damn.

Waititi doubles down on funny stuff that worked in small doses in Ragnarok by stretching it past any point of humour here. Liked Neill, Damon and Lesser Hemsworth playing bad actors in that film? Well, you get bucket loads of it here with Melissa McCarthy as a Fat Hela (that’s the joke: she’s fat). Liked Korg’s overly literal asides? Well, he’s in seemingly every second of the bloody film here, including narrating it. Russell Crowe pops up for a cameo that everyone clearly feels was hilarious but really looks like a big-name actor amusing himself with a borderline racist Greek accent. The film is crammed with this crap.

Hemsworth does okay I suppose, but in many ways the film feels as much of an ego-trip for him as it does Waititi. Natalie Portman gets to do some some fun things, but comedy isn’t her natural forte and she struggles with getting the zing in the dialogue that Tessa Thompson manages. It builds towards a big ending where Thor weaponises children and then the film lands on an utterly unearned emotional ending at a secret place – as if Waititi suddenly remembered his films work best when they have a heart – at the centre of the universe that is so easy to reach you wonder why people didn’t go there much earlier in this franchise. Even the final explanation of the title feels thrown in at the last minute and I’ve no idea what we are supposed to make of Thor’s character arc in this film.

The lack of heart is what is missing here. There is nothing heartfelt or emotionally true really in this. Nothing to give you warm feelings or to make you say “ahh”. Instead there are just endless, endless smug insiderish-gags. This is a piece of shit and the silent reaction it got from the full audience I saw it with says it all. A smug, tonal mess by a director who is over-indulged and unrestrained and forgets that humour works best when grounded with some sense of drama. I’d definitely rather watch Thor: The Dark World again.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are souls in love separated by war in Cold Mountain

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law (WP Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Eileen Atkins (Maddy), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Lucas Black (Oakley), Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe), Cillian Murphy (Bardolph), Jack White (Georgia), Ray Winstone (Teague), Melora Walters (Lila), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie)

There was no difficult novel Anthony Minghella couldn’t adapt for the big screen. Cold Mountain is as beautiful and handsome a film as any he made, and his masterful scripting of a complex story is testament to his skill. So why is Cold Mountain not more loved? Is it because it’s almost too well made, too handsomely mounted, too literary and intelligent? Is it, actually, trying a little too hard? Is it a Cold Mountain itself, a giant structure of beauty but with an icy heart?

Based on Charles Frazier’s novel, set in the final days of the American Civil War, confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), knowing the war is lost, deserts to return to the woman he loves, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). The two of them have only spoken a few times but they feel a deep personal bond. During the years of war, poverty has hit preacher’s daughter Ada, although she has crafted a life-changing friendship with 18th century trailer trash Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) which has helped her survive. As Inman’s odyssey home leads to him encountering a number of different vignettes that show the despair Civil War has brought to America, Ada struggles to survive and avoid the sinister attentions of home guard enforcer Teague (Ray Winstone).

There is so much to admire in Cold Mountain I want to start there. The photography is beautiful, and the film is assembled with a striking grace and skill. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design is perfect, with each shot of the film being fabulously composed and each carrying a specific message and purpose that contributes to the overall impact. The use of music – a collaboration between T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared – is perfect, a series of wonderful period compositions and impactful orchestral pieces. 

Everything about how Minghella captures the feel of the time, the mood of the South heading into war, and the disintegration of social conventions as the war takes hold and lays waste to the land, rings completely true. From the celebrations of the young men at the film’s start, to the increasingly haunted, tragic look of Jude Law’s Inman as he discovers new horrors at every point in his journey, you know war is hell. Minghella ironically opens the film with a catastrophic defeat for the North – but the slaughter disgusts Inman, and his burial under mounds of rubble during an explosion leads to a spiritual rebirths with Inman deciding senseless killing isn’t worth the candle any more. In a war of willing volunteers, how do we respond when these volunteers don’t want to keep fighting?

And why should they, as each of the various vignettes Inman walks through is a wasteland of moral collapse? From a sex-obsessed preacher (an amusing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has lost his morals to a tragic widow desperately trying to feed her baby (Natalie Portman, effectively stealing the whole show with an intense performance of utter desolation), everything Inman sees shows that nothing is worth all this. The film gets a very good sense of the drive that pushes Inman forward: constantly moving, he’s rarely seen sitting or resting. Each of the Odyssey-inspired stories gives him something to reflect on, or another opportunity for moral and emotional torment , from dragging bodies in a chain gang to avoiding the lustful advances of a group of hillbilly sirens who trap deserters for money.

Meanwhile, things ain’t much better on the homefront, where corrupt bullies like Teague (a slightly too obvious Ray Winstone) are enforcing their own law at the expense of justice. Poverty is also the impact of war, and poor Ada suffers hugely from this, as supplies run low and eventually out. Minghella’s swift and skilful establishment of character shows from the start how Ada is a stranger in a strange land, a middle-class town girl who is completely unsuited for country life and utterly unready to fend for herself when the chips are down without support. 

Is it any wonder in this world, that Inman and Ada cling to memories? Part of the film’s effect depends on how you respond to the romantic bond between these two clinging to a few brief moments (a few exchanges and one immensely passionate kiss on the day of Inman’s departure). It’s an old-fashioned, sweeping, love story and it depends on you relating to that old-fashioned mythic love story. I’m not sure that the film quite sells this as effectively as it could do. Somehow, perhaps because Inman is so insular and Ada a little too difficult to relate to, the passion between them can’t quite carry the sweep that the film demands, even as Minghella skilfully intercuts between them.

Nicole Kidman in particular feels miscast as Ada. Kidman is too intelligent, too determined and strong a performer to convince as a woman who is unable to look after herself and nearly succumbs to fear – she’s just not an actress I can picture cowering in fear in front of an angry rooster. Kidman does her best, but the character never really wins the sympathy that we need for the performance to work. Jude Law has much more to work with as Inman, brilliantly communication a whole world of feeling with very little dialogue. 

What works less well with Law is that his plotline just doesn’t quite grip enough. The vignettes are often entertaining, but feel like episodic sketches, and the sense of a building picture of the despair of the South doesn’t quite come into shape as much in practice as it does in theory. Frankly, after a while, you are ready for Inman’s journey to come to an end and for him to intersect with Ada’s plotline back at Cold Mountain (which is built around a consistent group of characters who engage our interest).

In the home front storyline you’ll be relieved with the entrance (almost an hour into the film) of Renée Zellweger’s blowsy Ruby, a loud-mouthed, trailer-trash woman with a heart of gold and a mastery of farming who effectively saves Ada’s life. It’s a loud, big, Oscar-winning performance from Zellweger that plays with being a little broad, but is skilfully balanced by the slow reveal that this personality is a cover that Ruby uses to hide her own pain. Added to this depth, her heart-warming presence carries such simple pleasure and colour compared to the more muted performances from the leads that you welcome it. 

Because Inman and Ada don’t quite work as a romantic couple. There is something slightly cold about them, slightly hard to relate to. And for all the intense and brilliant construction and filming of the film – and the mastery of Minghella’s writing and direction – it never makes them into the sort of classic romantic couple you care for. You want to connect with it more than you ever really do, and whether that is down to miscasting or the lack of intense chemistry between them I’m not sure, but it means Cold Mountain never becomes the great romantic tragedy it should be. You want a film this good to be as good as it feels – and it never quite is.

Heat (1995)

De Niro is packing Heat

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Al Pacino (Lt Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Sammy Casals), Ted Levine (Detective Mike Bosko), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), William Fichtner (Roger van Zandt), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Danny Trejo (Trejo), Xander Berkeley (Ralph)

In the mid-90s, Heat was the cinematic event of the year. De Niro! Pacino! Together! In one scene! The two acting heavyweights – wildly proclaimed and popular since the 1970s – had of course made The Godfather Part II together but had shared no scenes. Here, however, we’d see them both at the same time riffing off each other. The great thing is that there is so much more to Heat than just that one scene. Heat is a sort of poetic cops and robbers flick, part stunning action adventure, part profound exploration of the internal souls of men chasing down leads, both good and bad.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a skilled career criminal who lives his life with a monastic self-denial, saying you can have nothing in your life “that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner”. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is a bombastic, egotistical, workaholic detective with a self-destructive family life. Naturally, these two men find themselves on opposite sides, as McCauley plans his next job and Hanna works to stop him. But the men, with their similar codes dedicated to their chosen career, find that they have an increasing mutual respect – not that that will stop either of them “putting the other one down” if push comes to shove.

Heat is the pinnacle of Michael Mann’s career, and his most triumphant exploration of the conflicted, complex, masculine personalities at the heart of the high-adrenalin worlds of crime and police work. Mann has a gift for giving the simple rush and tumble of cops and robbers a sort of epic poetry, like a metropolitan Beowulf, and he achieves this again here. Heat is a film that throbs with meaning, it’s cool blue lensing and chilly, modern architecture serving as a perfect counterpoint to the cool, professional and focused personalities of its characters.

Heat also goes the extra mile by building this playground confrontation into a mythic battle of wills, a battle of principles and ways of living that seem separated only by a few degrees. Mann invests this with such sweep, such grandiosity (without pomposity), such scale that it becomes a sort of modern epic, a film where intense meaning can be mined by the viewer from every scene. Whether there is in fact any meaning there – avoid listening to Mann’s commentary which drills down so many of his elliptical character beats and open-ended scenes into the dullest, most predictable tropes that he had in mind while filming – is another issue, but Mann’s trick as always with his best work is to make something really quite small and everyday seem like a grand, timeless epic.

It all boils down to that famous coffee shop scene, where De Niro and Pacino for a few magic moments come together. It’s a scene that explicitly asks us to see cop and criminal and understand that there is in many ways very little to choose between them. It hinges on the gentle competitiveness of the actors, and the way they subtly play off each other. It also plays on our own histories of these two actors, of decades of seeing them as two sides of the same coin, both carrying so much cultural baggage for a string of iconic roles that saw them rule Hollywood for over a decade. It’s the sort of scene given extra investment, where you sense the mutual respect of the actors fuelling the strange bond that powers the scene. 

It’s also the one scene of the film that Pacino underplays in. The rest of the film he goes way bigger, powering through each scene with an explosion of shouting and drama. It’s a performance ripe for parody, with more than an edge of ham, but it just about works. Pacino turns Hanna (hilariously the character shares a name with a BBC political journalist of the 1980s) into the purest form of adrenalin junkie, a larger-than-life personality who tears through people and cases with a focused determination that allows no room for a personal life. De Niro downplays far more by contrast, apeing a sort of 1940s noir cool, a monkish insularity that prevents anyone from getting close to him, mixed with a laser-guided determination to do whatever it takes to make his score.

Mann’s film throws these two characters into a series of stunning set pieces with the bank robbery at the centre (“the one last score” that McCauley can’t pass up no matter the danger). The robbery – and the shoot out that follows it – is a triumph of action cinema, brilliantly shot and edited. The gun play is stunning, with Andy McNab having served as a consultant for the actors on the use of automatic weapons. The scene rips through the screen, spewing bullets all over the place in a ruthless, no-onlooker-spared rampage that also really pushes the limits of effective sound design. That’s just the highlight of several scenes that – with guns or otherwise – hum with tension, danger and excitement.

Mann also has enough room in this film though to skilfully establish a number of supporting characters with compelling story lines of their own. Val Kilmer is a tad wooden as McCauley’s number two, but his storyline of troubled marriage is mined for unexpecting pathos (thanks also to Ashley Judd’s fine work as his wife). Kevin Gage is very good as a psychopathic criminal unwisely brought on board to fill a slot in an early robbery. Dennis Haysbert has his own tragic plotline as a criminal trying to turn straight. Diane Venora is excellent as Hanna’s neglected wife, as is Portman as his vulnerable daughter-in-law. This isn’t to mention excellent performances from a rogues gallery of character actors, from Jon Voight to William Fichtner. 

Mann keeps all these plotlines perfectly balanced in a film that is very long but never drags for a minute. Crammed with exciting set pieces and brilliant sequences, it’s a film that manages to feel like it is about a very masculine crisis – the failures of men to balance the personal and their career, selfishly harming those around them because of their addiction to action. Mann’s film looks brilliantly at the essential emptiness and sadness this leads to – as well as the blinkered drive that never prevents men from stopping for a second and changing their lives, no matter how many reflective cups of coffee they have. Mann partners this existential, poetic feeling drama with the ultimate crash-bang cops and robbers and thriller, which will leave you on the edge of your seat no matter how many times you see it. Quite some film.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

He hates sand you know. Anakin puts the moves on Padmé in Attack of the Clones

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi)

Nothing could be as bad as The Phantom Menace. Surely? Well, umm, Attack of the Clones is pretty bad, but it’s not quite as stodgy and racist as the first one. It really isn’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still tone death, poorly written, crappily directed, poorly assembled, textbook bad film-making disguised under a lot of money.

Anyway, ten years have crawled by since Phantom Menace. Padmé (Natalie Portman) is now a senator campaigning against a revolutionary Separatist movement in the Republic, led by mysterious former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). After a failed assassination attempt, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padewan pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) are assigned to protect her. After another assassination attempt throws up a strange link to a mysterious planet of industrial cloners, Obi-Wan investigates leaving Padmé in Anakin’s care: but the two of them are falling in love, strictly against the rules of the Jedi order.

Sigh. Attack of the Clones is once again a mess, overly computer engineered, badly directed by a director with no knack for visual storytelling other than throwing special effects at the screen. It has a densely disinteresting plot about shady dealings around a mysterious Clone army that eventually the film doesn’t bother to resolve. Lucas shoots the entire film in a shiny, sterile, entirely computer generated environment that looks worse and worse the older the film gets. It builds towards a series of clashes at the end that have impressive spectacle on first viewing, but are hugely empty viewing experiences the more you come back to them. But all this isn’t even the film’s main problem.

First and foremost, the most egregious problem with this film is the romance at its heart. This romance, whose impact is meant to be felt through every film is to come, is as clumsy and unconvincing as anything you are likely to see. Not for one second are you convinced that this couple could ever actually be a thing. For starters Anakin is a whiny, preening, chippy rather dull man who over the course of the film murders a village full of people. Hardly the sort of character to make women swoon. On top of this, his romantic banter and tendency of staring blankly and possessively at Padmé has all the charm of a would-be stalker, mentally planning out the dimensions of the basement he’ll imprison his love in. 

Padmé is hardly much more engaging. Her way of handling this love-struck young man, who she claims she doesn’t want to encourage? To flirt with him in a series of increasingly revealing costumes, while constantly telling him “no we can’t do anything” – for unspecified reasons. But then as she says “you’ll always be that 12 year old boy to me” (Oh yuck George!). Portman looks she can barely raise any interest in holding Anakin’s hand, let alone conceiving future generations of Skywalkers. The desperate attempt to create a sense of “love across the divide” falls flat, flat, flat with all the sweep of a Casualty romance of the week. Put it frankly, we are never ever given any reason at all for us to think that they have any reason to be in love.

Despite all this the film desperately tries to throw them together into a series of clichéd romantic encounters, from candle-lit meals to gondola cruises around the lakes of Naboo. Jesus the film even throws in a flirtatious picnic (in which, true to form, Anakin espouses the benefits of totalitarianism, hardly the sort of thing to get a young girl’s heart fluttering!) followed by a roll around in the long grass after a bit of horseplay. To be honest it’s sickening and all the fancy dressing in the world never disguises the utter lack of chemistry between either characters or actors. And you’ll suffer with the actors who are trawling through the appalling “romantic” dialogue. The infamous “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth” sums it up – especially as Anakin ends it with stroking Amidala’s exposed shoulder possessively. Late in the film Padmé says “I’ve been dying inside since you came back into my life” – I know how she fuckin’ feels.

But then to be honest nothing really works in this simply terrible film. Of course a lot of the blame rests with Lucas whose overwhelming ineptitude as a writer and director is exposed in scene after scene. Most of the dialogue lacks any wit or lightness at all, constantly straining for a grandeur it can’t deliver and reads like George simply knocked out the first draft and left it at that. As for his directing: the camera positioning lacks any imagination what-so-ever. Most scenes that don’t have lightsabers feature characters sitting talking at each other to fill in plot details (I’m not joking here, there are so many different designs of chairs in this film it’s like strolling around IKEA). Sometimes George spices it up by having characters work slowly and aimlessly from A to B telling each other the plot (I’m failing to resist saying this is a pretty decent metaphor from the film).

The film shakes this up with a few action sequences which either tediously ape things we’ve seen before, but not-as-good (a chase through an asteroid field smacks of Empire Strikes Back) or having a computer game realism to them that never involves you. A prolonged sequence in a battle droid factory literally looks like a computer game from its hideously shiny lack of realism, to its logic, to the way George shoots it with the conveyor belt moving relentlessly forward visually like a dated platform game.

In fact computer game is a pretty good way of thinking about this film. When making this film, Lucas was convinced this would be the start of a new age: that only dull, traditional directors would be building sets and that all the cool kids would make everything in computers. Watching this film today in hi-def blu-ray does it no favours. Lucas’ computer generated sets (in most shots everything except the actors and their costumes are not real) look ridiculously shiny and unrealistic. There is no weight and reality to anything. Instead it all looks like some sort of bizarre, wonky computer visuals. How can you invest in anything in this film when even the goddamn sofa they are sitting on is a visual effect? How can anything have any weight or meaning? Compared to the lived in appearance of the Millennium Falcon, nothing looks realistic or carries any weight at all.

George Lucas isn’t really a director of action either. It’s hard not to compare the epic battles here with the style and substance of the (equally effects filled world) of Lord of the Rings being released at the same time. There, the battle scenes not only carry real emotional weight and peril but also have at least some sense of tactics and story-telling. This is just a collection of special effects being thrown at each other, like an exploding fart in a special effects lab. This makes for events that look impressive when you first see them, but carry no lasting impact: when you revisit the film, nothing feels important or dangerous or coherent – instead it’s just a lot of stuff happening, loudly.

This goes for the famous Yoda-Dooku light saber duel. Sure when I first saw this, seeing a computer generated muppet take on a stunt double with an octogenarian’s face super-imposed on his felt really exciting. But again, on repeated viewings, it’s just a load of wham and bang that kind of leaves you cold (not least because the fight is a showy bore-draw). It’s as ridiculously over-made and over stuffed as half a dozen other fights in the film. It’s almost representative of how crude these prequels are: a character always defined by his intellect and patience in Yoda reduced to a bouncy special effect for a moment of cheap “wow” for the fans. I’ll also throw in the lousy fan service of turning Boba Fett (a character who has a fascination for a lot of fans for no real reason) into an integral part of the Star Wars backstory – as if George intended this character at any point to be so popular, until he released the merchandising opportunities…

Lucas’ direction fails time and time and time again. Even small scenes fall with a splat or feature moments that get the wrong type of chuckles. The moment where Anakin embraces his dying mother? Forever ruined by the snigger worthy collapse of Pernilla August’s Shmi in his arms, looking like a primary school child miming playing dead (tongue out and all) in a school play. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s chase through the skies of Coruscant packed with “jokey” attempted buddy cop lines that never ring true. The film has even more skin crawlingly embarrassing scenes than Phantom Menace, from a sickeningly cutesy room of “younglings” learning Jedi skills to Obi-Wan’s bizarre encounter with a greasy alien in some sort of American diner. There is precisely one moment of wit in the film (Obi-Wan using the force to tell a drug dealer to “You want to go home and rethink your life”). Other than that – nope, it’s poorly made, poorly written, poorly assembled rubbish.

None of the actors emerge with credit. Pity poor old Hayden Christiansen, left to his own devices by Lucas’s inept, direction free, direction. But he is absolutely, drop-down, unreedemably awful in this film. In fact Anakin, far from being a jumping off point, was the death-knell of his career. Was there really no other young actor with charisma who could have stepped in to take this role instead? Portman fairs a tiny bit better, while at least McGregor, Jackson and Lee have enough experience to take care of themselves. But there is no sense of relationship between any of these characters. The two most important relationships Anakin has in the film contain no chemistry: he and Padme and he and Obi-Wan (neither of whom seem to particularly like each other).

Attack of the Clones could never be as disappointing as Phantom Menace (what could?) but it’s far, far, far away from being a good film. It’s got a simply terrible script, is directed with a dull flatness that all the CGI flair and shouting can’t distract you from. There is nothing in there for you to invest emotionally in. It’s built around a relationship that quite frankly doesn’t work at all on any levels. It builds to a random ending that feels like George ran out of ideas rather than because it meets any thematic reason. How could it all have gone so wrong?

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Jedi vs Sith – where did it all go wrong in The Phantom Menace?

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quashie (Captain Panaka), Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum), Kiera Knightley (Sabé), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi), Brian Blessed (Boss Nass), Ralph Brown (Ric Olié)

Has there ever been a more disappointing film than The Phantom Menace? I don’t think any film has ever opened to so much hype and fan expectation. The Second Coming could have trouble competing with the expectations piled onto this first Star Wars prequel. Everyone thought it would be the film of the year. Until they saw it. No one thought it would be the film of the year after that.

Of course you should have sensed a disturbance in the force the second you read the opening crawl. The first sentence “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic” sounds promising right? Well let that expectation die as we hit the second sentence “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute”. Not exactly a flight for the Empire with the Death Star plans is it? Perhaps only a multi-millionaire like George Lucas could have expected a storyline based around a tax dispute would get the pulses racing. 

But then this is a jumping off point for a seriously shambolic film experience. Phantom Menace is a total mess, an incoherent, poorly scripted, farce of a film, a terrible stumble through a dashed off storyline that makes no sense. Anyway, Naboo is a planet under siege from the Trade Federation. Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to negotiate but things quickly turn to violence and they need to flee the planet with its 14 year old (?) elected (??) Queen (???) Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). On the planet of Tatooine they encounter a 9 year old slave Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with a natural instinct for the force. Qui-Gon wants to train him, while the Galactic Republic tries to resolve the siege of Naboo.

That’s sort of the story – but even writing it down seems episodic and vague. But then that’s everything in the film. Nothing is really clearly explained, and we are never properly introduced to who all the sides are in this film and what they might want. There is a complete lack of any real narrative sense at all. The antagonists and protagonists of the film are hard to define. In fact they are frequently a pile of two dimensional yawns. It’s pretty hard to care about any of them. I guess you feel a bond with Obi-Wan, but that’s based on old films – watch this and Obi-Wan is a do-nothing whiner. 

But all the characters are infected by this. George Lucas is completely unable to bring any characterisations to these people, his lines constantly falling flatly or crappily to the ground, while the actors themselves struggle to find anything to engage it. Harrison Ford famously told Lucas on the first film that “you can type this shit but you can’t say it” – and that’s pretty much nailed on for this film. There is not one single vaguely memorable line in this film. Rather you are struck every second with feeble lines that sound like they might have had depth (“There’s always a bigger fish!”) but when analysed for a second make no sense whatsoever. It’s no wonder Neeson seriously considered quitting acting after this film.

Yes these two characters will get it on in the next film. Yuck.

There isn’t a single character in the film to really invest in. There is no equivalent to your Han Solo, the witty outsider to puncture some of the grandaeur. Instead every character is a flat, po-faced, non-personality who spend all their time in the film very seriously going about their business, never explaining anything. The Jedi are particularly affected by this, written as serious stick-in-the-muds constantly lecturing and ticking off other characters. Qui-Gon Jinn makes a tedious lead character, who constantly gets in the way of the relationship building we need to see between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Because we know where the film series is going, spending time on Qui-Gon feels like wasted time. The backstory is to see the relationship build between Obi-Wan and Anakin – instead they hardly speak in the film, and we instead spend ages on Qui-Gon. It’s poor story-telling and wastes a film showing us unimportant back story rather than spending time on the core stuff. It’s bad enough that we have to waste one third of the prequel series on Anakin Skywalker: The Wesley Crusher Years (seriously has anyone, even a child, ever loved a film where a brattish, super kid is the hero? You won’t be shouting Yiipppeeee…)

Lucas isn’t a director of actors, he’d say the same. But he is supposed to be a master of visuals and special effects. This is a film where everything you could possibly imagine has been thrown at the screen. Each frame is full of complex business, every single section crammed with special effects. There is a lot going on visually all the time, but all of it comes across like an explosion in a colouring book. Unlike the effects of the original trilogy, nothing really feels real or carries any real weight. Instead you see every special effects shot in the film and see frames filled with clutter and shiny, computer generated weightless nonsense. Worst offender is the hideously overextended pod race sequence, like a particularly dull Formula One race, which carries no real stakes (as we all know the result) and, for all the high speed camera work and editing feels not one iota as thrilling as the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi.

On top of this, most of the interventions into the Star Wars backstory makes the original trilogy worse. This is the film that gave us midichlorians, some sort of magic alien thing that lives in blood and gives the Jedi the ability to use the force. The reaction to this midichlorian nonsense, undermining the mystique of the force into something that could measured like a top trump was so negative that it was mentioned at most once in the two sequels. Other areas got similarly scathed, not least turning Anakin Skywalker into the worst form of “gifted child”. I’m not even going to touch on the icky fore-knowledge we have about the fact that Anakin and Padme are going to get it on in the future, something that is hideous to think about.

The most hated character in film history?

Lucas also fudged the new stuff he introduced in the film. The worst element: of course it’s poor old Jar-Jar Binks. I genuinely feel sorry for Ahmed Best, an actor whose career never recovered, who is just doing here what he was told to do. But Binks is the most irritating character possibly ever conceived for a hit blockbuster. An idiotic, comic creation designed for the kids who falls over, trips up, says stupid things and steps in shit he does nothing useful for the whole course of the film and tries to entertain kids who were way more interested in Darth Maul. Binks is almost irredeemable, every sentence enough to send everyone’s teeth on edge. 

Lucas trumpeted how much Binks was setting the trend of being the first major computer generated character. Lucas was incapable of guiding the actors to respond (or even look at) the correct spaces where Binks was standing. And Lucas was so pleased with it, he never stopped to think. Binks makes no sense. Like the rest of the Gungans he’s a joke. There is literally no reason at all for the Jedi to take him anywhere with them, particularly as he constantly gets in the way, causes trouble and offends people. Even in the “desperate” final battle, Binks prats about – compare him to the moments of tragedy and sacrifice given to the Ewoks in Jedi and you’ll see how bad this is.

Yes Watto loves Money. What? What’s the problem?

And of course he and the Gungans are shocking racist caricatures in their Jamaican accent. If you had any doubts that Lucas had no one saying no to him on anything, this film is stuffed with pretty shocking racist characters. Binks is terrible, but the villains of this place are the money obsessed Trade Federation, all with Japanese accents. On Tatooine, Anakin is kept by a greasy, fly ridden, money obsessed, big nosed, fly-covered alien Watto who looks, sounds and acts like a children’s version of The Eternal Jew. Did no one watching the film take a second and say “hang on this looks a bit dodgy…”

All of this nonsense finally comes together in a grand final battle which sums the whole film up, in a sequence where the tone shifts and changes all the time with no sense of a single person doing so intentionally. We have the Gungans comically fighting the droids in a series of awful little vignettes. We have the Queen chasing through the palace in a poorly explained subplot. We have a 9 year old child accidentally flying a ship into space and accidentally blowing up the baseship (Anakin saves the day without even realising it, the one thing that could make the child even more irritating than he already is). And we have the Jedi fighting Darth Maul in a battle that looks impressive at first but is in fact overly busy and overly choreographed. 

The Phantom Menace has few reasons to like it at all. You get bored with the story. You don’t invest in the characters. You don’t engage with the events. You don’t feel your pulse racing. The plot drifts from planet to planet with very little logic at all. The dialogue is terrible. The story telling is abysmal. The direction is flat. The film throws in moments that crap over the original trilogy. Lucas made is wait for decades – but then seems to have produced a film that he didn’t really want to do. It’s a truly dire film.

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman in the intense world of ballet in Aronofsky’s crazy masterpiece Black Swan

Director:  Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth MacIntyre), Benjamin Millepied (David Moreau), Ksenia Solo (Veronica), Kristina Anapau (Galina), Janet Montgomery (Madeline), Sebastian Stan (Andrew)

Something about ballet just makes people think of obsession. Many dancers criticised Black Swan for perpetuating myths about the dangerous psychology, the quest for perfection, the personal life imbalance connected with the all-consuming art ballet seems to be. It’s hard not to agree with them – but that doesn’t mean Black Swan isn’t unsettling, creepy and hypnotic film-making. 

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an obsessive member of the New York Ballet, focused on achieving perfection and lives a sheltered, barely adult life at home, dominated by her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). With the forced retirement of company lead Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), Diagheliv-style director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) selects Nina to play the dual role lead of white and black swan in Swan Lake. Leroy feels she is perfect for the innocent white swan, but needs to work on the sensual black swan. Increasingly feeling the pressure of playing the role under the demanding Leroy – and growing increasingly preoccupied with her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) – Nina’s fragile psyche begins to fracture.

Black Swan is a mesmerising mixture of psychological drama, melodrama, Cronenberg-style body horror, unreliable narration and immersion into a pressure-cooker world. It’s often difficult to watch, sometimes maddeningly over-blown, and overly tricksy in its intense visual style. But despite that, it’s actually compellingly watchable, an audacious tight-rope walk between style and substance that constantly feels like it’s going to get lost in its extremes but never does.

Aronofsky’s camera flies and whirls like the ballet dancers he is recording, and he creates a wonderfully dark spin on The Red Shoes. What I found particularly fascinating watching the film again after many years is how unreliable and imprecise so much of the story is. Told completely from the perspective of Nina – a woman subject to delusions, chronic social insecurity and an increasingly split psyche – it becomes clear that a lot of what we see may not be as clear-cut as we think. 

This most obviously affects our perception of Mila Kunis’ rival (or is she?) dancer Lily. How many of the interactions we see are actually happening, and how many are fantasies? With Lily becoming an alternative physical form for Nina’s projection of her own “black swan” persona (several times, Lily’s face morphs and shifts into Nina’s), we have to question virtually every appearance we see of her – and interpret her personality from the prejudiced, fearful view seen by Nina. Similarly, Barbara Hershey’s domineering mother (while undoubtedly controlling) is perhaps not the monster we see. She’s clearly 100% right in her fears for Nina’s sanity. How much of her behaviour is possessive jealousy and how much is it a protective parent who knows her daughter is a danger to herself?

Then of course we have Nina herself. Natalie Portman won every award going for her performance here, a tour de force of bravura dementedness mixed with vulnerability. Nina is a character who we only slowly realise as the film progresses is not the innocent, childlike waif she first appears, but has a much darker, more complex personality. Her “black swan” side – the darker, sexual side of her personality she is encouraged to explore – slowly expresses itself more and more as a physically. Portman clearly demonstrates the differences between the two sides of Nina’s personality. Her increasing desperation, isolation and insecurity are very effective – and the moments where she allows the “black swan” persona to control her actions are riveting.

Aronofsky explores Nina’s unbalanced mind with moments of pure body horror – although it’s grand guignol ickyness like this that probably pushed some people too far. It ties into most of the film being (quite possibly) a series of Nina’s vivid fantasies. Ballet wounds become increasingly magnified – from a broken toe nail early on, to Nina obsessively picking and scratching any wound. In one impossible to watch moment she obsessively picks off a long strip of skin from a finger wound (fortunately revealed immediately after to be fantasy). Beginning to believe she is growing wings, she obsessively scratches her back and has visions of swan flesh morphing over her body. At one point she fantasies her legs breaking into swan legs. In between this are bouts of sexual exploration – both solo and with partners – that seem increasingly unnerving. 

Aronofsky’s ballet world is one of meticulous work and back-stabbing brutality. An early sequence covers Nina’s almost ritualistic preparations of her ballet shoes. The troupe, far from supportive, seems to be ripe for bitchy debate and rivalry (although of course some of this may well be Nina’s unhinged perception). Winona Ryder has a neat cameo as a former star dancer, ruthlessly dumped for being too old. Vincent Cassel’s director is at best a domineering bully and at worst a position-abusing horndog, depending on how reliable Nina’s perspective is. It’s the setting of a melodrama, and Aronofsky has expertly mixed a Silence of the Lambs style psycho-drama and The Fly style horror.

Portman holds the film together brilliantly under Aronofsky’s distinctive direction. It’s not going to be for everyone – but Aronofsky understands ballet if nothing else, shoots it brilliantly, and when we finally see Nina fully transformed as the Black Swan dancing the final performance, the energy and controlling focus of her performance, and its beauty, really comes across (even to a ballet ignoramus like me).

Black Swan is such an off-the-wall mix of styles, and so out there in some of its visuals, story developments and characterisations, that it’s not going to please everyone. In fact, catch this on the wrong day and you’ll hate this film (and probably really, really, really hate it). But catch it at the right time and it will stick with you. But whatever your view of its gothic style and content, you’ll admire Portman’s performance, respect the craft with which it has been made, and enjoy several fine performances from Cassel, Hershey and Kunis among others. It’s weird. Very weird. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Leon (1994)

Jean Reno teaches Natalie Portman the ways of death in classic romantic thriller Leon

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Jean Reno (Leon), Natalie Portman (Mathilda), Gary Oldman (Norman Stansfield), Danny Aiello (Tony), Michael Badalucco (Mathilda’s Father), Ellen Green (Mathilda’s Stepmother)

Luc Besson is an interesting film-maker, part visionary, part pulpy stylist. He has undeniable talent and visual flair, but far too often wastes this on trashy and juvenile comic book films, with a teenager’s preoccupations rather than a focus on story and character. One of the few exceptions to this is Leon, a film that marries his vibrancy with a heartfelt story.

Leon (Jean Reno) is a professional hitman working in New York, a dedicated professional with the stunted emotional maturity of a young teenager. One day the family of his next door neighbour is ruthlessly slaughtered by demented, drug-dealing cop Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), leaving only precocious 12-year Mathilda (Natalie Portman) alive. Despite his concerns about involving himself in the world, Leon takes Mathilda in – and these two outcasts develop a deep emotional bond, part mentor-pupil, part father-daughter, part celibately romantic.

In many ways, Leon should be an uncomfortable viewing experience. It’s a film that explores the growing emotional and sexual awakening of two characters, one of whom is a 12 year old girl, the other a hitman in his 40s. In fact it’s hard to imagine it even being made today by a Hollywood studio (it was controversial enough at the time). However, it works because the characters are so skilfully established. The 12 year old is precociously mature emotionally and sexually for her age, the man is so emotionally stunted and childlike in his outlook on the world he effectively feels like a 14 year old. The sexual interest is all from the girl, and is constantly batted gently aside (with a confused lack of understanding) by an adult who doesn’t understand the adult world and its feelings. As such, the film manages to side-step the creep factor and turn itself into a sort of touching fable.

It further works because our two leads give such terrific performances. Jean Reno perfectly understands Leon’s childish appreciation of the world, his touching faith in other people (his father-figure Tony is clearly swindling him), his simple delight in things (his wide-eyed appreciation of Singin’ in the Rain is very endearing). He’s naïve and has a child’s lack of understanding of violence and its impact. He’s focused so tightly on his narrow world, he’s clearly never developed any real emotional understanding of the wider world. Reno creates a character who is a seasoned killer who feels like a under developed teenager – emotionally and sexually he’s pretty close to being a 12 year old himself. His interest in Mathilda is rooted more in an elder brother/sister relationship. You get the feeling sex has never even really entered his mental equation. It’s a masterful performance, effortlessly cool but also stirringly real, sweet, vulnerable.

Equally brilliant is Natalie Portman’s enthralling performance as Mathilda. She creates a character who is sexually daring, seemingly far more adult and savvy than Leon in many ways, but is still recognisably a vulnerable child. She’s spiky and defiant, but this hides a deep rooted sensitivity and a desperation for love and affection. Her continued expression of sexual interest in Leon is as much rooted in a desire to feel part of a genuine caring family unit as it is some desire to initiate sexual contact. Her performance is perfectly nuanced and searingly real. Portman also feels both simultaneously adult and childish, so she never feels as out of place.

The film also works because it feels like a slightly unworldly drama. The rules of this world seem slightly fairy-tale like. It happens in a dreamy New York, with shady gangster chiefs, corrupt cops and hitmen moving serenely from location to location, with seemingly no intrusion of “real” people into this equation. The world seems oddly off-kilter, a self-contained fantasy where Leon is some sort of gentle ogre and Mathilda an Alice in Wonderland. While it’s set in a real place, Besson’s film feels like a sort of violent bedtime story. It becomes harder for sex in this context to seem threatening.

Instead, despite the killing and slaughter, this is a sweet and even slightly sentimental love story, about two souls who have an inherent understanding of each other. It’s a deep bond that transcends their ages and social conventions. Besson really understands this, and it’s what motivates and powers the film. They switch roles between child and adult smoothly: So one moment Leon is almost fatherly, teaching the basics of sniper work to Mathilda, the next she teaches him to read. There are undertones of sexuality, but the feeling is that neither of these characters really understands the complexities and realities of sex, because one is too young and the other is too emotionally immature.

Besson’s film making around this is sublime. The film is stylish beyond belief, the camera and editing fluid and dynamic. Action scenes hum with tension and excitement. The violent confrontations (of which there are many) are brilliantly done. Besson draws extraordinary, heartfelt performances from the two leads and creates a wonderfully moving fantasy-tinged world. His invention and pulp style brings a unique feel to what is a heartfelt, rather tender story. It’s a perfect marriage of style and content, where both complement each other. The story feels heartfelt, the execution gives it a swaggering extra dimension.

The tender reality of Reno’s and Portman’s performances – and the marvellous gentleness which Besson films this with – allows other parts of the film to go fully over-the-top. This is not least the case with Gary Oldman’s ramped-up-to-eleven Stansfield, a Grade A nutter. Oldman leaves nothing in the dressing room here, completely letting rip. In a way a performance of such utterly demented excessiveness should be absurd. But with the other performances feeling so genuine, and Besson’s fairy-tale styling, means Oldman feels a perfect part of this world, the dark monstrous heart of a corrupted land. In any other context it wouldn’t work, but here it really does.

Leon is a very tender, exciting and emotionally moving film – a great example of stylish film making married to a genuinely moving storyline between two people who feel like realistic, three dimensional characters. Both the style and the heart of the story complement each other perfectly. It’s a terrific piece of film making, with three performances at the heart each on their own way a stand-out. It must surely be Luc Besson’s finest ever film – and a height he’s very rarely ever reached again.

Jackie (2016)

Jackie Kennedy patrols a White House she will soon be forced to leave behind

Director: Pablo Larrain

Cast: Natalie Portman (Jackie Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Bobby Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup (The Journalist), John Hurt (Father Richard McSorley), Max Casella (Jack Valenti), Richard E. Grant (William Walton), John Carroll Lynch (Lyndon B. Johnson), Beth Grant (Ladybird Johnson), Caspar Phillipson (John F. Kennedy)

“Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story

And tell it strong and clear if he has not,

That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory

Called Camelot.”

Or so sang King Arthur in Alan Jay Lerner’s musical Camelot. It’s apt as it’s a musical cue Jackie returns to several times in this thought-provoking, if rather stately, film that with one eye looks to sharply critique the legend building of American political history, while with the other staring with adoration at the very legacy at its centre.

The film follows, in a slightly non-linear fashion, the period of time from Kennedy’s assassination through to his state funeral and Jackie Kennedy’s departure from the White House (although other scenes feature Jackie during the presidency, most notably her filming of A Tour of the White House in 1962, a TV special the film lovingly recreates with a mixture of existing and newly-created footage and audio). The framing device is an interview Jackie gives with an unnamed journalist, set after the events of the film, in which she alternates between frank honesty and careful legacy building – all the time stressing she will decide what is, and is not, printed.

The film is a both a careful deconstruction of legacy building and a celebration of it, with Jackie Kennedy portrayed as a contradictory figure – keen to give her husband a place in history and, at times, resentful of the impact of public interest in her life. In a neat scene, Jackie Kennedy asks the driver of her husband’s hearse if he has heard of the last two Presidential victims of assassination, William T. McKinley or James Garfield. He knows neither. When asked if he has heard of the first, Abraham Lincoln, he of course is able to name check victory in the civil war and the abolition of slavery. It’s a sharp reminder of the work she must do for her husband’s legacy, with his achievements ranking nowhere near Lincoln’s.

The films suggests throughout that the planning of the funeral was focused on giving Kennedy (and by extension Jackie and her children) a permanent place in American folk-lore. It’s why the reprise of Camelot works in the film – it’s sums up the attitudes of America an administration that has indeed lived on as a short time of hope, with Kennedy as the lost Golden Boy. The appropriateness of the song is something the film manages to both use and comment upon – and which it also manages to make feel fresh, despite the fact the “Camelot” has been a nickname for the Kennedy White House ever since the 1960s.

Simultaneously, though, it is a film that lingers with wide-eyed wonder on JFK himself, and which presents LBJ as a far more corrupted and overtly political figure compared to the reverence the film feels for his predecessor (his serial womanising is given only a brief mention by Jackie during her conversation with her priest). Kennedy (played by an actor with a remarkable physical and vocal similarity) is always a romantic figure, his motivations or his achievements very rarely questioned. He’s filmed like the very romantic hero, which the film is half encouraging us to question that he was – and I’m not sure this is deliberate.

The film is acute and quietly non-judgemental throughout the scenes covering the assassination, reaction and funeral plans. So much so, that the framing device of the journalist (Billy Crudup in a thankless part, scruffily dressed, alternately arch and adoring) seems like it belongs in another, dumber, movie – as if we needed Jackie to give voice to her feelings, to actually speak words stressing her power and determination in shaping what is printed about her husband, in order to understand it. It’s an obvious, TV-movie framing device that really adds very little.

This is largely because Natalie Portman gives such a sensational performance in the lead role. As to be expected, it is a brilliant capturing both of Kennedy’s vocal and physical mannerisms. But more than that, it is also a sharp performance of deeply confused grief and guilt over her husband’s fate, mixed with a public strength (at times bordering on furious anger) in her determination to plan a funeral she felt befitted her husband’s status. Weak as the journalist scenes are, she dominates them with her skilful portrayal of a woman split between a need for intimate confession and determination to maintain control over the story.

Portman’s performance also provides the emotional anchor to scenes that could otherwise be careful reconstructions. The assassination itself (filmed within the car) has rarely seemed so immediate – and the camera largely sticks with Portman’s stunned, terrified face throughout the long drive to the hospital. Her combination of lost alienation, bewilderment and shock equally dominates the rushed inauguration of Johnson, while scenes of her returning to the White House to finally remove her blood-stained clothing shimmer with emotional intensity. It’s a film that captures the stunned sense of alienation from reality that comes after undergoing any major, life-changing event.

The film has a ghostly, elegiac mood. Larrain uses rather murky photography effectively throughout the film. The slightly grainy focus given to the general world of the film allows sharper primary colours to stand out at key moments. The Oscar-nominated score for me was, however, far too insistent – a series of sharp notes and discordant sounds mixed with mournful refrains. It draws too much attention to itself and makes the same point too many times to be effective. I suspect its a score that might work better in isolation. Far better are the quiet and controlled shots of Jackie walking listlessly through a deserted White House, or the careful mixing of the tragic and the mundane (when selecting a positon in Arlington for her husband, she has to ask a companion to slow down as her shoes keep getting stuck in the mud).

It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking and adult piece of film-making, that carefully avoids passing judgement or making pronouncements. I can’t decide if it’s a film that can’t make up its mind about events, or if it challenges us to make up our mind for ourselves. Either way, Portman gives an extraordinary performance and is well supported by the rest of the cast, in particular John Hurt who gives a charming, witty performance as the Priest who Jackie allows herself (for a moment) to be completely honest with. A dynamic and interesting addition to JFK films, that manages to find a new angle and even some new ideas from well-worn ground.