Fact as fiction or fiction as fact?

How do you dramatise history on film without adding a large dollop of fiction to the mix? Many have tried and most have failed. But Pablo Larraín succeeds better than many with Jackie, the story of Jackie Kennedy, giving an interview to her ghost writer some time after the assassination of her husband Jack. His film leaves a bit out (there’s little or no reference to the President’s serial sexual unfaithfulness) and the hagiographical nature of the film is a little obvious at times. But thanks largely to an intelligent screenplay, clever directorial control and, above all, to a superb performance from Natalie Portman as the troubled Jackie, the film takes wing as a slice of history and a piece of drama too. If Jackie Kennedy will always remain a mystery, possibly to herself as well as others, Portman makes her vulnerability very real and her extraordinary ability to seem in command of herself utterly believable. It is the kind of rounded portrait that must surely attract the Venice jury, headed by British director Sam Mendes, who knows a bit about acting.

The film is less certain in its other parts, though John Hurt is as convincing as ever as the priest who tries to comfort her. But some of those impersonating the President himself, and others of the Kennedy clan, strive a bit too hard to convince. Even so what comes out of this intelligent movie seems more than likely probable, with Larraín, whose last film was the fine Neruda, refusing to rely on too much actual footage to support his storyline. We get the efforts Jackie made to smarten up the old White House, and the fact that the word Camelot, used to describe a short-lived but remarkable period in American political history, was in fact taken straight from the old Hollywood film which Jack loved.

Was Jackie really so impenetrable — an elegant and sophisticated woman of the world who knew exactly what she was doing until the killing of her husband? Perhaps so, but some of the historical footage Larraín uses suggests someone caught in the headlights and never quite able to accommodate herself to the light. Portman is good enough to suggest this as well as the almost stately elegance, and this is the main treat of the film.

Everyone was looking forward, some in trepidation, to the latest film by Terrence Malick who, since Tree of Life, seems to have sunk into a parody of himself. Unfortunately Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey betrays all the faults of his latter-day work and few of the virtues of his earlier oeuvre. It looks good, of course (when did a Malick film not seem beautiful to watch?). But the poetic commentary, written by the director himself, is tiresomely repetitive and the enigma of life as put on the screen in what is frequently a portentous manner does not resonate in the mind as long or as often as it should. Even the underwater passages, gloriously shot among the strange creatures who live there, seem more like a good BBC documentary than anything more philosophical, and the sketchy footage of human beings, mostly the impoverished masses in India, make little or no sense. What we get from the 90-minute film is the struggle of a filmmaker who may think he is a visionary but seems stuck in a rut of his own making. You seldom make statements of importance with headlines but with much smaller efforts, like the best bits of Tree of Life. Maybe Malick has less and less to say and shouts louder and louder in attempting to disprove that fact.

Another piece of history as fiction is supplied by Irelands Nick Hamm with The Journey, which details the burgeoning friendship between Ian Paisley, the fiery leader of Ulsters Protestants, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of the IRA. The time is on the cusp of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, brokered by Tony Blair and the British Government. It looks likely to fail once again until a wily diplomat hits on the idea of sending the two men on a car journey towards Edinburgh airport, where Paisley will fly off to his 50th wedding anniversary. He is now 81 and still breathing holy fire until he slowly but surely unwinds towards his mortal enemy as the car winds its way passed the sodden countryside. Everything depends on the performances of the two men who see each other as monsters. And Tim Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness are more than up to it. The mistake Hamm makes is to suggest that the car is bugged so that Blair and co can listen to what is happening from start to finish.

In the end, of course, the two rivals became friends as Chief Minister and Deputy when the Peace Agreement is at long last signed. They were, in fact, so close that they were known as the Chuckle Brothers by a surprised media — testimony to the fact that, just sometimes, if enemies get to know each other their attitudes can change. The Journey is an entertaining movie if more like fiction as fact than fact as fiction. Hamm insists there is a basis of truth in the story and it is relatively easy to believe him.