Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman
It is not an easy task to empathise with Jackie Kennedy. She went through an ordeal of such horrifically large scale yet such intimate feeling, that the mix of personal tragedy and global-media scrutiny is nigh on impossible to understand. This is particularly difficult for those of us across the pond, or not old enough to remember the shocking events of 22nd November 1963. Yet despite this large obstacle, Pablo Larraín seems to have made it his mission to bring us as close to the First Lady’s grief as possible, without losing sight of the wider effect of John F. Kennedy’s death. Director of The Club and No, Larraín has a formidable arsenal of weapons to use in his quest. These are, primarily, Noah Oppenheim’s award-winning screenplay, Mica Levi’s arresting score and a simply astonishing performance from Natalie Portman.
The posters and release date for Jackie suggest an awards-friendly biopic, the kind of film that immediately draws a sigh from the more cynical section of moviegoers. What Larraín has given us, however, is a different beast entirely. The film is not so much about Jackie Kennedy as a woman, or even as a First Lady, but about her as a woman and First Lady directly after the death of her husband. There is fantastic character insight and emotional depth to Jackie, but Larraín and Oppenheim choose to explore these elements of her character by honing in on just a few days of her whole fascinating life.
Within this short time frame, one of the key features of Oppenheim’s script is its structural approach, mixing up the chronology and flow of events to create one large, fragmented portrait of grief. Larraín accompanies this with a rich visual aesthetic, mixing various colours and textures, whilst also integrating superb costume designs to remind us of Jackie’s fashion-icon status. This view of Jackie in the media is just one of the themes explored in the many pieces of mourning.
Oppenheim introduces key supporting characters such as Billy Crudup’s journalist, John Hurt’s priest and Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy to bring in ideas of public image, religion and the grand political implications of JFK’s death. Yet despite this widening of the focus, there is still an unerring commitment to the personal tragedy at the heart. There is a nightmarish quality to the way the images flit about between the multiple difficulties and horrors of Jackie’s experience, as she deals with lingering grief over the death of her children, guilt over her slight mishandling of the situation and the need to stage-manage a funeral on the biggest of stages; while Jackie struggles, the world waits, the world watches, and the world judges. But by linking all these issues around one mourning person, Larraín reminds us that real people live in the White House and they have hopes and fears just like the rest of us.
Whilst this is all magnificently effective, there is the danger that, on reflection, the fragmentary structure makes the film feel like a collection of very intense scenes and striking images rather than a coherent whole. Larraín gets away with this by and large, however, because the fragments can be seen to reflect Jackie’s fragile mental state. Perhaps even more so, they represent the different thoughts and emotions running through Jackie’s head after the shooting; they vie for space in the film, putting one on the backburner whilst the other one comes powerfully to the fore, just as they do in Jackie’s mind. Larraín can afford to take such a daring narrative approach because the two things he keeps running throughout the film are Levi’s superb score, and Portman’s stunning performance. They unite the disparate elements around a simple yet powerful study of grief.
It seems almost impossible to have discussed Jackie without mentioning how bloody magnificent Natalie Portman is. You’re probably sick of hearing it but she really does deserve all the plaudits she gets. In her portrayal of near-overwhelming mourning, she shows anger, guilt, stoicism and sheer heartbreak. In every scene, she is a perfect picture of somebody living with grief, treading the line between coping and crumbling. The way she trembles throughout the film, each fibre of her face contorted into an expression of potentially inexpressible grief, is nothing short of mesmerising. Larraín knows he has something special in his leading lady and wisely puts her front and centre.
As well as his score, script and performances, Larraín uses his visuals excellently, in particular the violence of the film. It would have been easy to draw the audience in by showing us bloody gunshot wounds at the film’s opening, but this is a simple shock-tactic and could have faded fast. Instead, Larraín is confident enough to save the gore and grip us tightly anyway. From the start he makes fantastic use of Stéphane Fontaine’s excellent cinematography to bring us close to the shooting, but cleverly hides the wound itself. This lulls the audience into a false sense of security before the true bloody horror is unveiled. More than a splash of gore to liven up proceedings, we see the wound when Jackie recalls it to the journalist. It is as if it has been in her mind all the time, just as it has been lingering in the background of the film. She managed to blot it out for so long, but eventually she can’t shut it out any longer and it floods into her consciousness, just as it floods onto the screen. We want to look away, we want to stop being shown the images, but, like Jackie, we can’t escape the horror.
This adequately fulfils the film’s tagline, Jackie’s wish that, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack”. In his marshalling of outstanding performances, a daring narrative approach and excellent music and visuals, Pablo Larraín has let us see just what they did to Jackie too.