It’s the incongruity of the Jackie Kennedy story told in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie that makes the film so compelling. She is the immaculately dressed and coiffed “first lady” who ends up with her dying husband’s blood and brains in her lap, trying (as she puts it) to “hold his head together”.
This isn’t the typical Hollywood biopic which gives us the whole course of its subject’s life, from soup to nuts, birth to death. The film has a very narrow focus. It begins a week after the assassination of John F Kennedy. A journalist, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), turns up at the Kennedy home in Massachusetts to interview Jackie for LIFE magazine.
Over the course of the interview, she talks very frankly off the record about the death. There are flashbacks to the events in Dallas but also to a “tour of the White House” programme that Jackie presented on American TV in 1961 and to the build up to JFK’s funeral.
Natalie Portman gives a very fine, very mannered, performance as Jackie. She has a slight lisp and her teeth are pointed. Everything about her is contradictory. She is calculating but impulsive. One moment, she’ll seem like a breathless debutante, the next like a character from a Greek tragedy. She’ll speak in blandishments but then she will say something that will startle White with either its bitterness or profundity.
“I am not going to let you publish that,” she tells him whenever she says anything too acerbic. There is always a cigarette in her fingers, but she warns White, as far as his readers are concerned, she doesn’t smoke.
The journalist and the widow don’t necessarily like each other but they’re in collusion, trying to present the American public with a version of the “Jackie story” that will console them. She seems very aware of the myth-making that is going on all the time. The blasts of Richard Burton performing songs from Camelot which run through the film remind us of the still potent fantasy of the Kennedy White House as youthful and idealistic.
Just as the journalist is looking for a story, Larrain is trying to find his movie. This is as much a character study as it is a conventional narrative. Jackie is in almost every shot, frequently in very big close-up, as if Larrain feels that her secrets can be discovered in the contours of her face. “You were at the centre of it all and I imagine it is impossible to have any perspective from that vantage point,” White tells her early on in what can only seem like a condescending put-down.
However, that’s precisely what makes Jackie’s point of view so fascinating. She is the cynosure. The people around her in the White House, whether Bobby Kennedy (a furrowed looking and permanently frowning Peter Sarsgaard) or the new President, Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), are minor characters by comparison. Every other performance, whether by Greta Gerwig as her social secretary or of John Hurt as the worldly-wise Irish priest Father Richard McSorley, seems pale next to that of Portman.
Larrain takes a morbid relish in contrasting the Jackie from the 1961 black and white TV show, guiding viewers around the White House and discussing the furnishings, with the figure we later see in her blood-spattered pink suit. The filmmaking style is as mercurial as Jackie’s own behaviour. At times, there is an operatic quality to the storytelling. Mica Levi’s sombre, sometimes baleful music adds to the sense that this is a cinematic wake. The mood, though, isn’t always bleak. There is some gossipy humour and nostalgia along the way.
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Jackie’s grief is always evident but so is her pragmatism. She knows her history. She is very aware that Abraham Lincoln’s widow died destitute. The moment she leaves the White House for the last time, Jackie is aware her status as First Lady will be immediately revoked.
It could have seemed presumptuous for a Chilean director like Larrain to tackle such quintessentially American fare. He’s working here from a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, best known for writing the first episode in the Divergent series of teen films. However, Larrain eschews all typical melodramatic conventions and comes up with a film that feels fresh and original.
Many other films have been set in and around the world of Washington DC but few have been as idiosyncratic as this. Larrain strains out most of the politics. We hear in passing about the burning issues and incidents of Kennedy’s presidency – civil rights, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam war – but Larrain never becomes distracted from his main preoccupation, which is with Jackie herself. “You were mother to all of us and that is a very good story,” the journalist tells her after finally stumbling on the angle which he thinks will make his article work.
The version he wants to give his readers is that when the nation was reeling from the apocalyptic events in Dallas, she held her nerve and her dignity, thereby helping everyone else to cope too. That, though, isn’t the story that Larrain is telling. His film is about the mystery of Jackie and the huge gulf between her public and her private persona. As played by Portman, she’s as hard to read at the end of the film as at the beginning – and that only adds to her mystique.
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