Daringly intimate and unusually insightful, Jackie sees a South American provocateur take on an all-American idol – and the results are unforgettable.
Known for his darkly humorous attacks on the Chilean establishment in films such as The Club and Tony Manero, Pablo Larrain is certainly a strange choice to helm a biopic of Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy, not least as he’s tended to train his lens on more obvious outsiders.
Larrain’s bold choices reap rich rewards in a film that covers the period immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, and which features a towering performance from star Natalie Portman.
Jackie finds Larrain apparently working as a director-for-hire. Initially reluctant, he was persuaded on board by producer Darren Aronofsky – originally slated to direct himself – and yet his incisive eye is in plentiful evidence. This anti-establishment figure draws out that very quality from his protagonist, as Jackie (Portman) is pitted against key White House figures, fighting her corner as she’s being ushered out the door, with just Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) on her side.
Larrain refuses to flinch from the gruesomeness of what Jackie has endured with graphic, horror-esque flashbacks to the shooting. Filming on grainy 16mm gives the film an almost home-movie feel, while the relentless close-ups tighten the focus around Jackie in the days following her husband’s death, fitting her snugly and emphasising her isolation as she’s robbed of her First Lady status and ousted from her home.
As the hours and days unfold, we watch Jackie try to process her ordeal in the most unsympathetic of environs. She’s at sea in a political machine that plays lip service to her loss but rumbles callously on, treating her grief as an inconvenience, her disorientation enhanced by Mica Levi’s woozy score.
Although Larrain takes us briefly back to happier times, JFK himself barely appears (when he does he’s played discreetly by the eerily reminiscent Caspar Phillipson). It’s a pointed decision as the film credits Jackie, at least in part, with the creation of his legend.
President for just two years, ten months and two days, Kennedy’s legacy is jeopardised by the brevity of his tenure; conscious of this, Jackie insists on a funeral to rival the grandeur of Lincoln’s, and during a carefully managed, fractious interview with Billy Crudup’s journalist – which acts as a framing device for the film – compares their brief White House reign to the mythical court of Camelot.
Portman has never looked more beautiful, or been more confident on screen, and presents Jackie on one level as a figure of almost parodic femininity – delivering her lines in a perfect imitation of Kennedy’s breathy voice, simultaneously slurring and clipped. But she goes beyond impersonation to plunge the depths of Jackie’s devastation and reveal her substance and steel.
Re-creations of Jackie’s White House television special (in a touch that recalls the political promos from Larrain’s Oscar-nominated No) betray her knowledge of and reverence for the institution but they also make her seem a little stiff and preposterous, a persona exposed as merely the public-facing, Stepford Wife-esque facade behind which lies a treasure trove of personality.
Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim interrogates his subject admirably; Jackie retains her dignity but she is presented in notable complexity – as cynical, vain, vulnerable, formidable. The execution might be unconventional, a lot of what is “discovered” here might be speculation, but what convincing, riveting speculation it is.
By offering up so much of this marvellous woman’s humanity, the film fleshes out a hitherto enigmatic figure; ultimately, it is with great pride that we watch Jackie step from her husband’s shadow in the aftermath of his death, having secured them both a place in history.
Jackie is released in cinemas on Friday 20 January