'Ethel' review: The woman behind RFK

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HBO's presents a documentary about Ethel Kennedy titled HBO's presents a documentary about Ethel Kennedy titled "Ethel." Pictured here, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, standing behind him, in 1961. Photo Credit: Conde Nast Archive

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REVIEW

THE DOCUMENTARY "Ethel"

WHEN | WHERE Thursday night at 9 on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT There have been many documentaries about the life and times of Robert F. Kennedy, but -- observes his fifth-born daughter, Courtney -- "what about the one who carried us and delivered us and has been with us the last 40 years?" Ethel Skakel was born in Chicago in 1928, grew up in a big, boisterous Roman Catholic family in Greenwich, Conn., and met Bobby on the slopes of Mont Tremblant in Canada, where it was "love at first sight," she says. This portrait was produced by daughter Rory, a distinguished filmmaker, who interviews other family members as well as "Mummy" -- now 84.

MY SAY Rory, 43, narrates "Ethel," but when it finally gets around to her father's assassination, she says just four words, all off camera: "Then we lost Daddy." Back to Ethel, who glances left, then right, then up, then down: "Let's talk about something else." It's a searingly painful moment, but in this film not an uncharacteristic one, either. A private member of the world's most public family, Ethel at times seems like a reluctant witness to her own life's story. "Why should I have to answer all these questions?" she wonders, only half jocularly.

In fact, what happens here is that a daughter's loving tribute to her mother slowly turns into a loving tribute to her father. Ethel recedes as Bobby's career crowds the foreground. At that point, some viewers will want to know more about the remarkable woman in the background, or just off-screen. She does finally come back into focus, as someone who carried on RFK's lifework and who imbued his values in their 11 children. And of life's tumult, she says: "As I've often said, nobody gets a free ride. Everyone has friends and family who have died or are really sick. So you have to have your wits about you. Dig in and do what you can because it might not last."

MY SAY A loving portrait of a lady -- but who probably would be just as happy not to have this or any portrait at all.

GRADE B+

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