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A glimpse of American 'royalty'

Documentarian daughter points the camera at elusive, reclusive widow of Robert F. Kennedy

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If you're an average member of an average family, no one outside your household really wants to see your home movies.

If you're a Kennedy, everyone wants to see them.

At least, that's the hope of filmmaker Rory Kennedy and HBO, partners in the new documentary Ethel, which premieres tonight on HBO Canada. The film is an affectionate but only selectively revealing look at the life of the wife/widow of Robert F. Kennedy, who also happens to be Rory Kennedy's mother.

Part of what makes this project noteworthy is that it's the first time in decades that Ethel Kennedy has submitted to interviews and discussed the triumphs and numerous tragedies of her life. Even in agreeing to answer questions from her documentarian daughter, however, the 84-year-old matriarch remains elusive.

"Why should I have to answer all these questions?" she asks as the two sit down among the lights and cameras.

"Well, we're making a documentary about you," her youngest daughter responds.

"It's such a bad idea," Ethel Kennedy says with a laugh, squirming in her chair.

Fortunately for the writer/director/narrator, she has eight siblings who are more than happy to discuss their mother and the family's history (Robert and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children, but lost two sons -- David of a drug overdose at 28 and Michael at 39 in a skiing accident).

The perspectives of the remaining siblings provide more than ample background for the reams of home-movie footage taken from the Kennedy and Skakel (Ethel's maiden name) archives. And theirs is an unapologetically fond and respectful telling of the story of the "Mummy" and "Daddy" who brought them into an especially privileged world and shaped what have, for the most part, been extraordinary lives.

Making the film proved to be a bit of an education for Rory Kennedy, who was born six months after her father's assassination in 1968.

"One of the great gifts for me is having now done this, is being able to sit down with my mother to do an interview with her over the course of five days, and with all of my siblings, and be able to ask them every question that I've ever wanted to ask," she said last summer during HBO's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "There were a lot of things that I did learn along the way that were really valuable to me, both about my mother and about them, as well. So it was a real gift, and I'm so grateful that I had that experience."

The film begins with the first meeting of Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel, on a dual-family ski trip to Quebec in 1945, and follows their relationship through their marriage in 1950 and the immediate and continual family expansion that followed.

Despite the film's title, much of the documentary is necessarily focused on the political careers of the Kennedy men -- John's first, with Robert acting as campaign manager for both his brother's Senate and presidential runs -- and then, after JFK's assassination, Robert's eventual decision to launch a political career of his own.

The inevitably stark passages dealing with the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy are difficult, but the comfort and strength Ethel Kennedy found in her unwavering religious faith are impressive.

The Kennedy family's life from 1968 to the present is examined only in overview fashion, with just enough detail to reinforce the notion that Ethel remained determined, after her husband's death, to see his legacy of public service and social justice carried on by their children.

"So many people in our family are involved in social-justice work, and it's always attributed to my father," says Kerry Kennedy, the seventh of 11 offspring. "And he deserves that, but the truth is that he died when we were very, very young. So that really comes from my mother, and those are her values. Those are the aspects of Daddy that she chose to have us remember and think about."

While it doesn't shy away from the tragedies that have been a constant part of the Kennedy story, Ethel steers completely clear of the scandals and unlawful behaviour that have also been responsible for keeping the families' names in the headlines during the past few decades.

Because of that, Ethel feels incomplete as a documentary. But as a home-movie project that has been given a specialty-network platform because of the subjects' position in American society, Ethel is a very engaging film. Twitter: @BradOswald



Written and narrated by Rory Kennedy

Tonight, check listings

HBO Canada

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2012 D3

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