In what must surely be a trace of sweet irony, Jackie was released in U.K. cinemas on the same day Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. Were this about a British head of state, it would be more than coincidence. Though Jackie isn’t about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, probably the most famous President of all thanks to his untimely assassination in 1963, but rather his wife, the titular Jackie. Taking place in fragmented time frames including immediately after the tragic events in Dallas, between then and JFK’s funeral, and Jackie telling her story to a reporter after the fact, Pablo Larrain’s film is a devastatingly intimate portrayal of a fascinating, complicated woman, and how she deals with not just the grief of losing her husband but the pain of losing her role in American history. Jackie Kennedy is painted as a woman haunted by her role in history, by her husband’s legacy, and her relationship to the people and the monuments of America that surround her. In doing so, it buries under your skin and refuses to go anywhere.
Natalie Portman, in a role originally earmarked for Rachel Weisz when her then-husband Darren Aronofsky was planning to direct, is astounding as Jackie. In a career littered with great performances, often even in poor films, it’s potentially a career best to date. She spent hours working with voice coaches, listening to tapes of the real Jackie, reading many books on her subject, in order to effect not simply an impression of the devastated First Lady but an absolute inhabitation. She exists within this multi-faceted woman, who hires Billy Crudup’s journalist to interview her for what turns out to be a hagiography of her husband but whom acts as her confessor, and tears through a performance filled with searing grief, contained fury and heartbroken love.
Portman shows the many layers to this ‘beautiful one’; the homely, sweet voiced facade she portrays during a grainy television tour of the White House she presents; the biting, bitter and sly witted woman we see being interviewed; and the haunted, scared woman we see with her confidante Nancy and John Hurt’s Irish priest, in whom she seeks solace and an understanding of God’s cruelty to her husband and her children. Portman takes us with her as Jackie searches for answers the priest, eventually, tells her aren’t there, for any of us.
That may suggest another overt layer of political subterfuge in Larrain’s film, but the director stays largely out of its way, and Noah Oppenheim’s script–originally conceived as an HBO mini-series–only lightly goes there, primarily through Peter Sarsgaard’s grieving, angry Bobby Kennedy who comes to blame himself for pushing his brother into political actions that may have hastened his death. This isn’t Oliver Stone, however, it’s not about the assassination in the sense of conspiracy, it’s about its place in American history framed through Jackie herself. Much like JFK does, the spectre and weight of history lingers over Larrain’s film; Jackie often pontificates on previous Presidents, terrified hers won’t be remembered, while Larrain creates the White House in pristine detail and allows for lingering shots, harsh conversations in large empty ballrooms.
It’s as much about America’s relationship with ‘Jack’ as it is Jackie’s, and that’s what haunts her – that the two will always be inextricably linked together, and she will form part of a legacy she wants to mean something. Bobby at one point asks her “what did we achieve?” – doubtless a question most Presidents ask themselves at the end. Larrain’s film allows you to wonder what JFK might have achieved had he lived and served a probably inevitable second term.
Draped over with an erratic, unerring store by Mica Levi which will haunt you as much as the assassination haunts our lead character, Jackie is a powerfully moving, mournful and elegiac film about love, loss, power and history. Jackie Kennedy (and eventually Onassis) is remembered as much for the pink Chanel couture which remains an iconic symbol of the 1960’s as much as the Presidents wife, but this provides a timely reminder of the quiet power and dignity a First Lady can give to her husband and his country, especially in times of crisis. Natalie Portman truly gets that across in a mesmerising performance which only serves to enhance the power of the script and Pablo Larrain’s piercing, personal and graceful direction. Perfectly timed as we enter interesting Presidential times, Jackie is about as heartbreaking a portrayal of JFK’s history and legacy as you could imagine.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
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