Natalie Portman described herself as being “terrified” at the thought of portraying one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. You can’t blame her. Not only is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (nee Bouvier) a towering figure, de facto American royalty and one of the most famous women to ever have lived. She is also a person who has had untold amounts written and discussed about her. Articles, books, stage plays, screenplays and probably countless academic papers. As it turns out; Portman didn’t have anything to worry about. She delivers a performance to match the scope of Kennedy’s legend and brings Jackie to life.
The story center’s around the seven days following the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. The film starts with an interview taking place at the end of this period between Kennedy and the journalist, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup).
However, the timeline jumps back and forth within this short period as we see Kennedy try and help organize the funeral, assisting with the transition to the incoming administration of Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) along with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), as well as planning the logistics of leaving the White House with her family.
Moreover, Kennedy is forced against her will into a role of having to protect and defend her husband’s legacy and delivering a confession to a priest (played by John Hurt). It is stories within stories and we have Portman delivering performances within performances.
Portman is not only playing Jackie Kennedy but she is portraying Jackie Kennedy playing the part of beloved and passive First Lady in a socially conservative environment. At the beginning of the film, Kennedy tells the journalist that she will be dictating the terms of the interview and what will be going into the finished profile interview. This film has stories wrapped up within stories. Representing how history and truth can easily be distorted by those in control of the storytelling. It becomes a story of truth vs a good story and which of those is perceived to be more important to a fragile nation.
There are layers and layers are distorting truth to create a new reality. These themes coupled with the non-linear narrative create a disorienting, kaleidoscope feel to proceedings. It can, if you’re not focusing, become cold and alienating but stick with it. Really concentrating your energies to grappling with this film does reap tremendous rewards.
Director Pablo Larrain delivers a biopic that veers away from convention and morphs into theatrical tragedy with incredible intimacy. The way the shots unsettling drift through the White House remind you more of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the corridors of the Overlook Hotel than the West Wing. It only deepens the sense of melancholy and tremendous struggle of Jackie’s ordeal.
The direction is facilitated by a staggering musical score by Mica Levi. She takes the classical major string scores one associates with the glamour of American high office and its first family and distorts it. Switching to minor keys and blending in piercing drones to signify the end of a fairy tale that Kennedy is attempting to create in hindsight to cement her husband’s legacy.
At the centre of everything is Portman’s performance in the titular role. It is something that is more than a little eerie in its mimicry. The strange combination of upper class English and a New York twang in her accent is nailed perfectly, along with her mannerisms. Portman seemingly morphs into Kennedy herself to the point where she even begins to look like her.
Reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar winning turn as Abraham Lincoln, Portman is tightly controlled and theatrical rather than cinematic, in keeping with the theme of performances within performances. It could not be more removed from her unhinged display in Black Swan but it ranks alongside it as the best performance of her career.
Overall Jackie is a triumphant biopic by Larrain. One that is not afraid to shy away from showing us their subject’ flaws and not delivering a fluff piece, something which Larrain discreetly criticises via the interview between Kennedy and the journalist. The direction and music are wonderful and Portman in the eye of the storm, imparts an acting masterclass.