Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
In the last 100 years there have been a handful of moments in American history that can be argued to have brought trauma to the collective consciousness. 9/11 is one. The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is another. And one can look broadly at the cultural upheaval that occurred in the years that followed as a sort of societal grieving process; a loss of innocence experienced en masse. Chilean bright hope Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No) makes his English language debut with a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), but instead of falling into the genre pitfall of cliffnoting her life in sweeping widescreen, he and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim zero in on a specific and harrowing bracket of time; the immediate aftermath of her husband’s murder.
In the process Jackie casts off the wider chaos of a world in turmoil and places it’s subject in a pair of strict and stifling parentheses. Portman is cocooned by Mica Levi’s lush and devastating orchestral score. Larraín often pushes in closer to her than feels comfortable. Close-ups are frequent. In doing so he begins a process of exploring grief experienced in what must be one of the most surreal of circumstances. The film is a little stifling because of this, and certainly morose, but it is a complete entity; a bubble. There is no easy entry or exit, but once you’re in, you’re in.
Larraín might just have been the best possible choice for this. In his (fantastic) 2012 film No about the political campaign that helped topple General Pinochet, he proved himself a master of the modern period drama, seamlessly blending archival footage with staged scenes shot on videotape, blending through texture. It’s a technique deployed to a similar degree here. Mercifully we’re saved the gratuitous experience of being subjected to the Zapruda footage (which played crassly over and over again in the final courtroom scene of Oliver Stone’s JFK). Instead, it is Jackie’s famous tour of the White House that is used to blend the real and the reconstructed. And, later, the funeral procession which captivated millions (it doesn’t hurt his cause that Jackie wore a black veil throughout).
This may all be argued to be nothing more than an exceptional and showy parlour trick, but it is in keeping with the self-conscious staging throughout. Jackie is not a naturalistic film, and frequently the grace or poise of a tracking shot or slow zoom will announce itself. It’s an unapologetically stylised piece. But this compliments the insane ‘bubble’ experience which it’s protagonist is experiencing; a woman who has crafted her own image out of the one relayed to her by the public. In a very real sense, Jackie perceives her life – and her grief – as a film. Public perception is always part of the process.
Billy Crudup plays LIFE magazine journalist Theodore H White, interviewing the First Widow a week after the assassination. He sits in awe of his savvy subject, and it’s easy to understand his reverence as Portman’s performance here is phenomenal. It is studied, with that demur accent and taught jaw, but the film strips away those initial layers to reveal a woman staggered by grief. There’s a lot of crying, but more affecting and heartrending are scenes in which she wanders rooms of the White House like a ghost herself, hopelessly trying to contextualise the building without her husband. Her interplay with Crudup is wry, playful but barbed, and this contrasts pointedly with the tattered creature scene in the film’s early flashbacks directly following The Incident. Thoughts fly in and out of her mind like leaves as, frustratingly, those around her seek to keep her from sight.
Jackie is at it’s best when it pries into those unreal feelings that swim in the immediate aftermath of staggering loss. Some, maybe most of us have had the misfortune of experiencing that sense of overload at some point in our private lives without the added pressure of trying to wrangle it into a presentable form for public consumption. It is a study of the warping nature of grief, the selfishness of it. That’s what makes the claustrophobia of the film so fitting. If it has any immediate companion piece, it would perhaps be the episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer directed by Joss Whedon in which Buffy loses her mother. The two are equally unusual in their presentation, but both capture that dizziness perfectly, even sharing some of the same visual language (long takes following in the wake of their subjects are a pointed connector).
A host of notable faces surround Portman. Greta Gerwig offers security and sympathy as personal assistant Nancy, while the likes of John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant and Richard E Grant pepper the sidelines in various roles. Peter Sarsgaard makes for a fine Bobby Kennedy, while John Hurt plays a priest whose presence allows Jackie to articulate her spiritual resentment. The two actors spark off of one another wonderfully. But this is Portman’s showpiece through and through and it’s safe to say she’s never been better.
Toward the end of the film, talking with White, Jackie tells of Kennedy’s love of the musical Camelot, not just the songs, but what Camelot represented as a historical symbol; as a legend. The line “there will never be another Camelot” haunts the film, echoing out from the moment it is spoken to feel as though it has existed at every other. It’s perhaps vulgar or easy to attempt to assign topical meaning to this sentiment, but as a man so grotesquely unqualified takes on the role of the American presidency, these words carry added and exceptional weight. Kennedy may not have been the perfect president, but he carries a legend with him that casts a shadow over our present.
A late scene typifies Jackie’s own iconic status. From her car window she spies rows of department store dummies, all of which share her likeness. Larraín’s film is preoccupied with objects and their import, and is an object itself. It’s a memorial not just to a woman, but to a man; to both of their legacies. It feels like a film in mourning not just of the past, but of the present. Heavy though it is, it’s a remarkable accomplishment for all concerned, and had it been released here a month earlier it would have comfortably snatched film of the year for 2016. As it is, though we’ve got a long way to go, the race for best film of 2017 begins here.