Heartache and quiet dignity define Jackie Kennedy Onassis in Pablo Larraín’s thoughtful biopic Jackie. Recounting the events immediately following the assassination of the 35th US President John F. Kennedy, the film written by Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant, The Maze Runner) explores an intricate swatch of issues facing both the United States on a macro level and Mrs. Kennedy on a micro level. Oppenheim and Larraín’s ability to overturn so many stones and explore so many corners of both American life and Jackie’s personal descent into melancholia, all under the watchdog snouts of overeager politicians, public scrutiny and the constant threat of the media’s clicking cameras, is nothing shy of hugely impressive, especially operating within such a relatively constrained run time, a mere 110 minutes. But Jackie’s true staying power lies in star Natalie Portman.
Portman has led a career offering quietly stunning performances, flitting between blockbusting tentpole features and esoteric dramas. Though she was remarkably grand in 2005’s V for Vendetta – putting in one of the finest ever performances in a “comic book” movie – it was her turn as a self-destructive dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s one-of-a-kind Black Swan that saw Portman earn Oscar gold.
Her work as the eponymous Jackie proffers similar flashes of brilliant character work. Portman steps into the skin, and vocal cords, of the short-lived First Lady, harnessing her body language and repurposing her distinctive Southampton accent to slink inside the character. There’s a fine line any performer must tip-toe between characterization and impersonation when bringing a historical figure to the screen and Portman understands the delicate balance better than most. Her turn as Jackie pays tribute to the idiosyncrasies of the person – the measured tics and rehearsed presentation of self – while also injecting her own interpretation of the character – those moments behind closed doors. She massages both the televised truisms and the stuff of rumors into a full-blooded, deeply complex woman.
Larraín makes quick work defining Jackie as Portman’s show. His camera often tight in her face, there is a voyeuristic quality to the scene work – which doesn’t even leave the side of the First Lady even as she’s showering away the blood and bits of skull of her husband. The intrusive nature of Jackie is heightened by the narrative framework of the piece which sees a story-eager journalist (Billy Crudup) dissecting events shortly after, hunting for the most sensational account possible while posturing himself as one of the “honorable” ones.
The relationship built between these two characters takes on a cat and mouse nature quality as Jackie feeds the hungry journo juicy bits of candid knowledge, only to then tell him, “You know I’m never going to allow you to publish that, right?” There’s a hint of playfulness buried in her grief. She enjoys toying with him. On the other side of the aisle is Jackie’s priest (played by a perfectly cast John Hurt) who attempts to contextualize faith in hardship. While Jackie is out to sea, unable to understand a God who would allow her the loss of two infants and now a husband, the priest’s devout musings may not be the remedy she needs.
Watching Portman struggle with the conflict of faith is trying. Jackie is such a hardened character – one who is manicured to a T, who puts on a performance each and every day – that we have to look beyond the skin she is projecting. As such, Portman’s turn is even more textured in that it truly is a performance within a performance. When the frills become exposed and Larraín exposes the real Jackie – the one behind the projection; the wounded, fierce and utterly candid Jackie – it’s like glimpsing the Man Behind the Curtain pointedly tugging levers and pushing buttons to project exactly the right image. Like when she strikes up her third cigarette and reminds Crudup’s reporter, “I don’t smoke.”
As we dip in and out of the life of Jackie Onassis, Larraín maintains a fierce sense of focus. This is not Jackie’s biography. It is a portrait of her grief. A glimpse into how a wife seeks to help define the legacy of husband. A peek into the tsunami of feelings cascading down on a woman who just had to pluck bits of her husband’s brains from her face. As such, Jackie has a pulse that few life-spanning biopics do. It at times almost feels like the aftermath of a horror movie, particularly when Larraín shows the assassination in all its gory detail. An absolutely ominous score from Mica Levi helps elevate the sense of dread, leaving Jackie awash in a kind of ethereal, drug-induced state. The byproduct of her many late night glasses of wine and the various little white pills she sneaks. It’s almost as if we’re slipping into and out of some horrible dream, which Jackie at one point compares the experience to.
Lauded Chilean filmmaker Larraín makes the jump to English effortlessly and directs with fire in his belly. That Jackie feels deeply personal and lacks that perfunctory sheen of “historical importance” – that it is a character study rather than a history lesson – speaks to Larraín’s humanist approach to the material. His ability to direct actors – from Peter Sarsgaard as an almost suspicious breed of Bobby Kennedy the likes that we’ve never seen to Greta Gerwig quietly turning in a tremendous performance – makes each character pop and gives further context to the colossal strain put upon Jackie’s load-bearing shoulders.
CONCLUSION: In addition to providing a platform for Natalie Portman to display her considerable talents, ‘Jackie’ is a terrific and multifaceted portrait of a layered American icon. Gloomy, textured and terrifically made, Pablo Larraín’s film turns a grossly compelling nugget of history into an arresting and potent piece of humanist cinema.