Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt
Director: Pablo Larrain
Running Time: 103 mins
Synopsis: Recounting the days after the tragic assassination of JFK, in which his wife Jackie (Portman) attempts to balance her grief with arranging his funeral, cementing his legacy and carefully cultivating her own public persona.
As one of the most defining moments in American history there is very little else to say when it comes to the events in Texas whereby President John F Kennedy took a bullet to the brain and threw the country into a state of grief and turmoil. However while most of the media has tackled the aftermath, the so called conspiracies and the events from different viewpoints, none have focused on the woman at the heart of it all, Jackie Kennedy. A hard woman to read, with many despising her seemingly egocentric reaction to his death, using it as a chance to cement her and his legacy instead of focusing on protecting her now broken family. What is brave about Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is he does not shy away from this fact.
Framed around an interview Jacqueline held with a reporter in order to capture her side of events that so many around the world thought they knew about, it is clear from the off that she is seeking not to tell the truth but to forge a certain view of herself to the public. It is an odd device and repeatedly takes you out of the film in order to feature another scene of Jackie stating again and again that she does not want this printed. Yes we get it the former First Lady wants to construct a particular image of herself, legacy legacy legacy is all this film seems to care about.
As Jackie narrates we are whisked back into the titular event, in a scene of startling immediacy Larrain’s camera flies across a highway zooming in on her cradling her dead husband as a Secret Service agent crouches over them. We then get possibly the strongest portion of the entire film as we follow Jackie through the first few hours after his death. It is a bewildering constantly shifting fragment of partial conversations, raw painful tears and solitary grief stricken walks around an empty White House, perfectly encapsulating the confusion and pain of trauma. She slowly and surely focuses herself though, and seeks to begin work on his funeral. It is in this moment Jackie becomes obsessed with preserving his legacy and coincidentally her own.
Natalie Portman gives a transformative performance here, nailing the distinctly mannered drawl of her voice and the restrained poise of her stature. She is also extremely forceful in her beliefs and has no qualms in underpinning her self-centred leanings at times. Not to mention being routinely classed as one of the best dressed women of the 2oth Century means she is impeccably tailored, this is a very beautiful film to watch. There is one major cravat though, she is a bit of a slog to watch. After the fifth time of quivering tears or portentous talk of suicide with her priest (a welcome if underwritten John Hurt) you begin to feel less and less sympathy for her. She may have just suffered from one of the most public and shockingly traumatic events but all this misery desperately needed some levity, or at least realism. I find it hard to believe the real Jackie spoke in such arty pretension all the time.
This is not down to Portman though, who manages to find the truth and complexity in the grief, instead it falls to Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim. They conjure up some effective images, the intercutting of real life footage is subtle and well placed, and Mica Levi’s score is hauntingly unusual. But for all its intimacy it all feels a little distant. The lack of a central story thrust means the film sort of drifts aimlessly when a sharper focus would have benefited the emotional undercurrents. A couple of raw moments punctuate the woozy nature, Jackie cleaning her blood stained face in the mirror or cradling JFKs brutally mangled head, but too often I yearned for a little less style and a bit more meat on the bones.
Larrain does make some smart choices though, he surrounds Portman with a bevy of solid performers. Richard E Grant is a charming presence as the White House’s interior decorator, Peter Sarsgaard makes for a conflicted Bobby Kennedy as he comes to terms with the fact that they may not be remembered for actually achieving anything, and Greta Gerwig gives her aide to Jackie role a dash of pep. As mentioned before the cinematography is authentic and sharp, same goes for the precise nature of the editing. I just cannot get over the fact, though, that I yearned for more. It left me just a little bit chilly, with less an appreciation for Jackie Kennedy than a wish to see Natalie Portman play this role in a more tightly plotted multi-faceted stage play. As a portrait of grief in the public eye it is astute and vital, as a piece of entertainment it is a failure.
Verdict: Handsomely shot and a score of unusual grace married with a truly magnetic Natalie Portman cannot mask a film that is thematically repetitive and emotionally distant.