UK Release Date: 20th January 2017
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Richard E Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Synopsis: As Jackie Kennedy recalls her late husband’s life to a magazine journalist, we learn about her grief-stricken actions in the days following the assassination of John F Kennedy.
America has a real fascination with its first ladies, as Melania Trump is just beginning to find out. One of the more talked about White House wives was Jackie Kennedy, who became immensely popular during John F Kennedy’s two years as president. After his shocking assassination in 1963, Jackie was an emblem for the nation’s grief at the loss of their leader. It is this period that is covered in Pablo Larraín‘s biopic Jackie, in which Natalie Portman produces a turn to rival her Oscar-winning work in Black Swan as the vulnerable, but powerful woman at the centre of one of the most important political events of the last century.
Jackie Kennedy (Portman) gives an exclusive interview to a journalist (Billy Crudup) and recounts to him her life in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). The film follows Jackie in the moments following the horror of the shooting and also documents the process of planning the funeral with his brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard). We also get a glimpse at Jackie’s relationship with friend and advisor Nancy (Greta Gerwig) and her candid discussions with priest Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt).
As a director, Larraín and scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim have no interest in constructing a straightforward biopic. The structure is anecdotal and non-linear, veering between time periods almost at random and avoiding any central plot thrust. Larraín’s camera finds unusual angles and constructs an impressionist vision of Jackie’s life rather than a simple chronological tale. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness as it leaves the film lacking in a clear message. The sense of slightly offbeat storytelling is enhanced by Mica Levi’s wonderfully odd score, which almost recalls sci-fi in its weirdness and feels like a sibling to Levi’s work on Under the Skin.
Thankfully, there’s an anchor for Jackie in the shape of Natalie Portman. Her performance is commanding and self-assured whilst also being fragile, physically and emotionally. Portman embodies Jackie as a walking contradiction, balancing the controlling stateswoman with her tiny frame and breathy voice. Her Jackie is one who understands the power of politics and the importance of the media, knowing exactly when to pull various strings. The character’s preoccupation with crafting a legacy leads to a crafted woman and there’s often a sense that Jackie is a performer rather than a true human being, stuck between her battle with grief and her determination that her husband is remembered as she wishes.
It’s in that element of Jackie that the supporting performances of Billy Crudup and the late John Hurt are enormously important. Jackie’s exchanges with Crudup’s reporter are the perfect depiction of her fastidious need to control and perform, ensuring that his portrayal of her is in line with her established media image. When she visits Hurt’s priest, however, the mask is allowed to slip and we get a sense of the real person, without the elegant clothes and performance of her media image.
Larraín’s film is smart in focusing on Portman, with his camera drawn inexorably to her face throughout the narrative. Such is the focus on Portman that the scenes in which the camera begins to wander elsewhere, including the surprisingly visceral assassination itself, are striking in their departure from the film’s established ideas. The film is a constant battle between Larraín’s artistic desires and the more conventional work done by the journalistic framing device. Those with an intimate knowledge of both Jackie and JFK may find it an interesting alternative take on the well-worn story but, to those less familiar with the history, it’s not quite the straightforward telling of the story you might expect.
Pop or Poop?
Jackie is a solid biopic, boasting an extraordinary central performance by Natalie Portman. Pablo Larraín’s odd, artsy direction makes it a tough film to access emotionally, but it has plenty of interesting things to say about control of the media and the preservation of legacy. Fans of the traditional biopic structure should stay away, but those willing to embrace something stranger may find something special.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.