Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Pablo Larrain
Stars: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Richard E Grant, Caspar Phillipson.
Oscar winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan, etc) joins the likes of Jacqueline Bissett, Katie Holmes and Jaclyn Smith in portraying former first lady Jackie Kennedy on the screen. But this is not a conventional biopic. Written by veteran newsman Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant, The Maze Runner, etc), this historical drama is far removed from the more dystopian sensibility of Oppenheim’s previous work.
This drama is set in the week following the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, and follows the newly widowed Mrs Kennedy as she deals with her very public grief. It draws a contrast between her public persona and her very private persona. While grieving and trying to hold herself together she tries to ensure both her place in history and her future, as well as ensuring that the legacy of her husband will endure. She arranges a very lavish public funeral while dealing with the transition of power to the Johnston administration, clashing with her ambitious brother-in-law Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, from An Education, etc).
The film is framed with the devices of Jackie reluctantly giving an interview to an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup) in which she explores her grief and the effect of the assassination on her personally. We thus see historic events from her perspective. There are also some intimate chats she has with her priest (John Hurt) that act as a sort of confessional as she admits to suicidal thoughts. But the film doesn’t follow a linear structure and the fractured narrative jumps back and forth in time, which makes it a little hard for audiences to follow events clearly. This structure is a little confusing and lets the film down, and also makes it hard for audiences to gain a greater appreciation and insight into Jackie Kennedy.
The Kennedys were something like American royalty, and this film attempts to give us a brief glimpse into that privileged lifestyle. Following the assassination, Jackie herself became a living, breathing symbol of the country’s grief.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda, etc) makes his English language debut with the film, but he seems like a strange choice for this very American story. Larrain’s Chilean films, like the violent and disturbing Post Mortem and Tony Manero, have always been quite critical of the politics of his home land, and here he seems to be critical of the Kennedy administration and its policies. He suffuses the film with a cynicism about the Kennedy’s idyllic so-called Camelot and his achievements in his three years in power. Here he refrains from the sort of flag waving patriotism that an American filmmaker may have infused the material with.
But it is clear that he sympathises with Jackie Kennedy, who has always been sidelined in accounts of the assassination and its aftermath. He also brings a harder edge and a harrowing realism to his recreation of that fateful day in Dallas. He has drawn upon the famous Zapruder footage of the assassination to frame his dramatic recreation of some iconic images, including a pink suited Jackie clambering across the car and nursing her husband’s ruined head in her lap.
He has also chosen to recreate that famous televised tour of the White House conducted by Jackie Kennedy in 1962, the first time television audiences were given a glimpse inside the Presidential home. Larrain uses this to draw a vivid contrast between the more tentative, almost shy Jackie and the stronger, more driven, and pragmatic woman who has been shaped by the tragic events in Dallas.
However it is Portman’s precise and nuanced performance in the title role that is the glue that holds the film together. This is an impressive performance and she immerses herself in a performance that captures some of her mannerisms, her style, her famous poise and charm. But she also conveys a very palpable sense of grief and anguish. This is a complex and nuanced performance from Portman, as she also brings a wonderful vulnerability to the role. She comes across as more complicated, but she also gets to show some raw emotion in scenes. French cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Elle, etc) works in close up for much of the film which highlights Kennedy’s emotional turmoil, but he also gives the material a slick visual surface and a claustrophobic feel.
The supporting cast includes Caspar Phillipson as JFK, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s assistant Nancy Tuckerman, John Callum Lunch as Lyndon Johnston and Beth Grant as his wife, and Richard E Grant as trusted advisor and aide Bill Walton.
Technical contributions are all first class and capture the 60s era nicely. Costume designer Madeleine Fontaine has recreated some of Jackie’s iconic outfits, while production designer Jean Rambasse creates the elegance of the White House settings. However, Mica Levi’s dissonant piano driven score is at times grating.
Ultimately, Jackie is a flawed film that demands a lot from its audience. This is a missed opportunity to put a human face and give us some real insight into one of the twentieth century’s most iconic women.