Review: Rory Kennedy's 'Ethel' -- A Tribute to a Mother and Survivor

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by Beth Hanna
October 16, 2012 12:00 PM
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Ethel Skakel Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy
Documentarian Rory Kennedy is the youngest of Senator Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy's 11 children, born seven months after her father's assassination in 1968. Never having known her father, except via the scratchy footage of history, home movies and stories from family members, yet also inevitably identified as a "daughter of Robert Kennedy," she set out to make a film about the unsung leading influence in her life -- her mother. To do this, she interviewed Ethel, now a twinkly-eyed elderly woman with a short-spoken, cards-on-the-table demeanor. She also interviewed the eight surviving brothers and sisters of her 11-sibling clan.

Rory Kennedy is neither a gifted narrator nor interviewer. Her narration, which spans her parents' upbringings, relationship, simultaneous ascension into the political realm and public eye, her father's death and beyond, has the congested drone of a middle-schooler delivering a history paper. Her questions, particularly to her mother, are a bit long-winded and the sort that back the interviewee into a "yes" or "no" corner. Also, she and her eight siblings insist on referring to their parents as "mummy" and "daddy," which grates painfully and, en masse, has the accidentally humorous feel of a strange, infantilized cult caught on film.

Yet somehow "Ethel," both the documentary and its increasingly interesting namesake, wins out in the end. Rory was smart to use, and lucky to possess, mounds of archival footage of her fabled family, which proves fascinating on both an historical and personal level. Home movies showing the skiing trip where Ethel and Robert were first introduced (and where Robert would become inconveniently smitten with Ethel's sister for a time), the cross-country convertible cruise following their wedding, the seal that animal-loving Ethel spontaneously brought home to the delight of her plenitude of youngsters, and random football games on the beach communicate a lifestyle bred in fun-loving privilege and still untroubled by the hard era ahead.

The news footage has been seen before, but cross-cut with the home movies, takes on a startling acuteness: Ethel laughing freely as she mentions during the JFK campaign that her kids think "it's taking an awful lot of time for Uncle Jack to become president," later whispering soberly through laryngitis about the strain of campaigning, this time for RFK; Robert feeding Cesar Chavez a morsel of food, later announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Indianapolis, to an eruption of screams.

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