Tradition and longing for a distant past make up some of the key themes of Jackie, fitting for a biopic of one of the members of the closest thing America has had to a royal family. Pablo Larrain’s film examines how the always confusing grieving process is made all the more bizarre by such trappings of grandeur as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) attempts to deal with the immediate aftermath of the assassination of JFK (Caspar Philipson). Definitely one of the best biopics of recent years, Jackie is anchored by a powerhouse performance from Portman as the iconic First Lady and filled with original and exciting filmmaking choices that separate it from the conventional awards-season period piece pack.
Framed by Jackie’s interview with an unnamed Journalist (Billy Crudup), only a week after the death of her husband, Noah Oppenheim’s script flits back and forth in time, from Jackie filming her tour of the White House to the day of the shooting and all of the funeral planning. Fantastic writing and exceptional editing let these sequences hang together with remarkable coherence, setting a consistent mood even when two scenes take place years apart. This structure not only keeps things fresh, but also allows for Jackie to have a large cast, littered with familiar faces, without ever feeling overstuffed.
Highlights of the support include Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s assistant Nancy, with John Hurt appearing as the priest that conducts JFK’s funeral. The president himself makes only a few appearances, rarely speaking, but makes a strong impression, mainly thanks to the very striking resemblance that Philipson bears to his character. Natalie Portman, though, rises above every other performer in the film to deliver her best role to date, and one that is sure to put her at the front of the race for this year’s awards season.
Portman’s accent and demeanour are spot-on, but there’s a lot more to her Jackie Kennedy than imitation. Whether she’s charming the world with her video tour of the White House or breaking down in her interview when describing the assassination, Portman brings an emotional intimacy that perfectly matches Larrain’s direction. Having to sell the abject horror of being splattered in a loved one’s blood is an immense challenge, which Portman more than rises to. Though this isn’t a film with a conventional character arc, the returns to the interview let us follow Jackie as she comes to terms with just how devastating the past week has been, and Portman is utterly brilliant with this small but important transformation.
That’s not to say that she suddenly embraces the reporter and allows him to write an absolutely true tell-all about her feelings. This is not the kind of film that would allow such an obvious emotional finale and, like its lead, prefers for the most part to keep the audience at an arm’s length. It could be read as cold, but instead serves to amplify the impact of the scenes where Larrain breaks down the barriers.
His use of 16mm cameras, along with recreating archive footage in the exact style in which it was filmed, is perfect for creating a ‘60s atmosphere before we even see the pitch perfect production design, costuming, and hair and make-up. It very much feels like the audience has stepped directly into the November of 1963, and though this has a slight alienation effect (like the perfect slice of the ‘50s in last year’s Carol), it makes for a really beautiful film. Everything is put together meticulously, and shot with skill and verve by Stephane Fontaine. Underpinning all of these stylish choices is a haunting score from Under the Skin’s Mica Levi, which sounds half-prestige piece and half-horror film.
Amongst all the flourishes and talk of presidential legacies, there’s a universal core to Jackie. Grief is strange and unpredictable, and the violent and sudden loss of a spouse only amplifies those aspects of mourning. Jackie goes back and forth on plans for JFK’s funeral, just wanting time with her family to process her loss. But her husband belongs to the country more than he does to her, and his death is pure formal admin. She’s forced to stand through LBJ’s (John Carroll Lynch) swearing in while still covered in blood, and every minor change to the burial plans requires national security clearance. These are haunting images and ideas, and Jackie’s rage that her husband’s ambition eventually stole his death from her may be the most wrenchingly honest depiction of grief in a uniquely insightful Oscar-season character study.