It was almost a little too on-the-nose for Entertainment One to release Jackie last Friday, given that it’s a film about mourning for a political figure lost in the wake of a terrible tragedy as the peaceful transfer of power takes precedence over anyone’s feelings. Then again, the film itself, which stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, is so much a callback to a bygone age that any comparisons to current affairs are moot.
The film dramatises a pivotal LIFE magazine interview by reporter Theodore H. White (here represented by Billy Crudup as an unnamed character), which took place in the week following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Mrs. Kennedy reserves strict editorial control over the cover story, but insists on fulfilling her duty as First Lady by putting on a brave face for the American people.
Through flashbacks, the film uncovers the different layers behind that public façade, before and in the week after the assassination took place. Jackie mourns with her children, brother-in-law Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), arts expert and confidante William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and her priest Father McSorley (John Hurt) while trying to secure the legacy that she and her husband worked for while he was alive.
Kennedy was the last President of the United States to be assassinated and coming in the advent of the television age, it’s one of the most documented events of the last century, from the Zapruder film to the countless conspiracy theories. Here, director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheimer are instead looking at Jackie’s extraordinary composure and her private anguish in the days that followed.
The film never gets to be sentimental or scurrilous in its dramatisation and the non-linear structure boldly mixes imagined private moments with other documented events, most notably in a recreation of a 1962 TV documentary in which the First Lady gave cameras a guided tour of the White House. The rest of the film matches the 1:66:1 aspect ratio and on a cinema screen, the televisual framing almost cages and isolates her, except that she’s the main mover in the story any time that she is on screen.
Natalie Portman was Larraín’s only choice for the role of Jackie and her performance is rightly being applauded in all quarters. In the centre of this stream of consciousness character study, she has to modulate herself for the various performances that Jackie puts on for the media and for those around her.
In company, she’s always mannered and graceful, but still somewhat isolated. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine moves his camera as though it has been set adrift with her, but it’s the shift in Portman’s manner depending on who she’s with that shows the most remarkable difference. In such a dignified and funereal portrait of a historical figure, there is sometimes a risk of calcifying a character rather than celebrating them, but the tremendous humanity of Portman’s performance keeps you absorbed even when the film’s coldness of touch could become alienating.
The film moves around in time, but not in tone and the project’s origins as a HBO miniseries are apparent in the way. With Portman as a constant, only Sarsgaard really makes an impression out of the supporting cast, as the fiercely protective younger Kennedy, united in grief with Jackie, if not in opinion. The supporting characters mostly only have to listen, but it means that Portman is doing most of the work and that Hurt and Grant serve much the same function as Crudup’s interviewer. It’s intended as fragmented, reflecting Jackie’s state of mind, but on a big screen, it comes off as episodic.
Composer Mica Levi also serves to rein in the many disparate pieces of the story with her superb score. The music soars and swoons with sadness, but it’s not doing the heavy lifting emotionally. Levi’s work on Under The Skin makes her perfect for this material, which feels darker and more introspective than most of the other biopics that fill up Oscar voters’ inboxes around this time of year.
Jackie is frankly more of a psychological horror film than a gilded, reverent biopic, seizing a less explored and more intimate perspective on one of the most discussed and dramatised catastrophes in modern history. Grounded by Portman’s supernaturally strong performance, it gives the viewer little else to latch onto and I confess I found it alienating at times, but its thoughtfulness and authenticity are laudable.
Jackie is in UK cinemas now.