As America officially welcomes its new President – mostly with protests – and the vocabulary of political discourse extends to ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and Making America Great Again, Chilean director Pablo Larraín takes on one of the most recognisable figures of the 20th century – First Lady, socialite, style icon and figurehead of a nation’s grief during its most tumultuous period, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Given Kennedy’s status as a bona fide icon, with her face on Warhol paintings and her clothing copied by everyone, the task of portraying her is no enviable task, for actress and director alike. Eschewing epic political drama in favour of exploring its eponymous protagonist’s turmoil, Larraín makes the smart move of keeping the focus on one week in 1963: From the assassination of John F Kennedy to his funeral, with Jackie at the centre. We see little of the outside world’s reaction to the event, and even the rest of Kennedy’s family remain on the sidelines (indeed, JFK himself barely features). This is all about her and the film is all the better for it.
While Noah Oppenheim’s script hits a number of expected beats – the Camelot motif appearing throughout – the film smartly avoids the clichés of the genre and history, preferring a more dream-like mood as Natalie Portman’s Jackie struggles to reconcile her grief with her overwhelming drive to assure her husband’s legacy is secure. The camera focuses on her face – sometimes eerily still, sometimes twisted in pain, and sometimes smeared in her husband’s blood – and exposes the full range of Kennedy’s personas. Flashbacks show her as she famously hosted the televised White House tour of the renovations she oversaw, struggling with the camera’s gaze as she performs the part of perfect First Lady; later, she sobs as she removes the remains of her husband from her cheeks then quickly composes herself long enough to witness Lyndon B Johnson’s speedy swearing in; the steely gaze she holds, hidden behind a black veil, as she leads the procession of mourners at the funeral of the century. This is a film as much about public relations as it is about loss.
While the mannered tones of Kennedy’s oft-imitated accents may inspire accusations of bad impersonations on Portman’s part (yes, she really did speak like that), to reduce her best performance in years to a voice would be to diminish its power. Portman plays Jackie as a woman consistently underestimated by all around her, one weighed down by expectations who refuses to slump under the pressure while eyes remain on her. Her single-minded dedication to ensuring her husband is remembered on near legendary levels gives her laser-like focus in every task, from researching Lincoln’s funeral for comparison to driving the ideal narrative through her interview with a journalist, played by Billy Crudup. In one witty scene, midway through her chain-smoking as she struggles not to roll her eyes at Crudup’s notes on their conversation, she tells him with absolute authority, “I don’t smoke”. She is painfully aware of her role as the vessel for a nation’s loss, and plays the part with such aplomb that she almost fools herself, but she can never shake off the irrevocable damage done to her life at such a young age.
Much of Jackie plays like a hallucination, with the colours turned up a little too strong to evoke the early days of technicolour TV, and clever use of old news footage to evoke the early days of hope. Mica Levi’s bizarre and shiver-inducing score rejects the expectations of the genre – no soaring violins, no patriotic horns – and adds slivers of horror to the tone. The almost comforting security of a dream – fuelled by Jackie’s large glasses of wine and stumbles through the White House alone – are abruptly returned to the harshness of reality in one particularly shocking scene where we see the JFK assassination with more visceral brutality than previously witnessed on film. Many will debate the necessity of such a scene, but within the context of a story about a woman fighting for her husband, it reminds the audience of the undeniable agony she witnessed first-hand, something no camera could ever capture.
Many will find Jackie too unconventional, too tonally off-putting, too focused on the wrong things to work for them, but those willing to accept the film on its own terms will find a stunning work of piercing attention and unsettling beauty. Larraín’s savvy decision to focus on emotion and image over the beats of more traditional historical drama allows for an intimate piece that exposes the mental and emotional labour of grief as a public act. It’s a shame that Jackie has been dismissed by many as schlocky awards bait due to its subject matter. A story this proudly abrasive deserves more.