Natalie Portman's emotionally charged First Lady offers a fascinating, if chilly, look at public grief in private spaces
It’s impossible to take your eyes off Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s snapshot biopic of the First Lady of JFK’s administration in the days before and after that day in Dallas in 1963. Admittedly, that is partly because of choice made by the director, already known for his atypical biographical features after 2016’s Neruda, to frame almost every character in extreme close-up through the film. Portman is simply there, all the time, a tiny but imposing physical presence, seesawing emotionally through seething rage and drowning grief, both hidden under a surface of detached professionalism a woman in her position was required to muster.
Working off Noah Oppenheim’s script, Jackie structures its shifting story around the interview the widow carried out with LIFE magazine journalist Theodore H White (Billy Crudup) in the weeks after the assassination. Chicly chain-smoking her way through their interview, the film flits back and forth through the visit to Texas, the motorcade and the shots, life at the White House, planning the funeral, and moving out into the unknown of what to do next. Equal parts brittle and bitchy, Kennedy demands to control the narrative, exercising control over what she’ll allow to go to print, a vision in benign beige wool malignantly reminding White “I hope you don’t for one second think I’ll allow you to publish that.”
Those coming to this film hoping to learn more about the real Jackie, the unrolling of her life from Bouvier to Kennedy and beyond, should look elsewhere. In focusing on just a month or so of her life, the usual milestones along the red-carpeted road of Oscar-baiting biopics are entirely ignored. Instead, Larraín’s film explores the myth and fantasy of the elected office of the US presidency. Jackie Kennedy strived to control the people’s image of her husband’s White House, making it a focal point of the arts and music, redecorating it to reflect the imagined splendour she assumed the American people expected. And when her husband is killed, her grief is as much for the loss of that fantasy as for the father of her children.
Ridiculed and belittled for wanting her husband’s funeral to be as grandiose as that of President Lincoln, Jackie becomes a powerfully evocative mediation on public and private grief and the act of collective grieving, with the First Lady, shown earlier scrubbing her husband’s blood from her face before being ushered to witness the transfer of power to Lyndon B Johnson, refusing to waver in her assurance that images matter. The irrationalism of her demands is neither denied nor belittled, her insistence that she walk behind her husband’s lavish funeral cortege a quietly powerful reminder to the American people of the fragility of the people elected to even the highest office.
Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) takes the hands of her two children while leaving the White House for her husband's funeral, with Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy [Fox Searchlight]
Portman’s skilful and exquisite work as Kennedy is complicated and nuanced, a deeply emotional performance layered under the physical affectations of the woman. Kennedy’s breathy and staccato speaking pattern is imitated, but the impression never becomes the part. In incredibly intimate scenes, where the blood-stained First Lady wanders through the pristine White House, saying almost nothing Portman conveys so much, quietly crawling into an empty bed. From doe-like to demon, Portman runs the gamut, a pacemaker for the rest of us.
But that intimacy comes with incredible distance, the film altogether chilly and remote. Mica Levi, best known for her unsettling score on Under the Skin, fills the film with sweeping strings and unsettling woodwinds, sumptuous and confounding at the same time. Jackie is good, excellent even, but not likeable. It wears its broken heart on its sleeve, but leans so heavily into its artifice that you’ll come out the other end no surer who the real Mrs Kennedy was.
Verdict: ★★★★☆ A gorgeous and interesting exploration of the intimacies of public and private grief, Jackie brings the First Lady to lucid life, albeit for a handful of moments
Jackie (15A/100mins) is released nationwide on January 20th