Film review: Jackie
In a poem Elizabeth Bishop says: the art of losing isn’t hard to master. But it seems the art of making a masterwork on loss may be harder than that. The mystery surrounding Jacqueline Kennedy, particularly her experience immediately following the assassination of her husband, whose broken head she cradled in her lap, has fascinated many for many years.
Here, director Pablo Larrain tells her story with his characteristic blend of melodrama and flourish. Jackie is unflinching, grave, empathetic, even if it anchors itself on a few known facts, and fills in the blanks with brazen imagination.
The American icon, famous for her couture and style, is played by Natalie Portman. It is in Hyannisport, Massachusetts one week after the tragedy when we first meet her. She receives a journalist, Theodore White (Billy Crudup), through whom she is determined to define The Kennedy Legacy which others have begun to desecrate.
Time spools backward and we encounter her in the recognisable deep-pink suit, with black lapels, elegant beside President Kennedy greeting crowds in Dallas, Texas on the fateful day.
And, as the interview touches on the broadcast tour the First Lady conducted on national television, there is grainy footage of Jackie padding across the White House chambers inducting the country on refurbishments completed under her auspices.
As in his portrayal of poet Pablo Neruda in another biopic, Larrain’s approach is unpredictable: the plot is non-chronological but moves forth and back and farther back and forth into a heady, swirling whole.
Accompanied by the lustrous ache of Mica Levi’s music, scenes are shot in 16mm, and backdrops are wan, as if colours themselves have been washed away by shock. Jackie, however, is consistently cast as a bold, definitive presence, Portman’s lithe physique marking her in red or lime or black, like ink-stamp on onion-paper.
In an affecting sequence, at the end of her long journey alongside the casket back to Washington D.C., that offers a glimpse into Jackie’s rare moments of solitude, her husband’s blood runs off her hair under the shower down her naked back. The dramatisation is at once violent and calm.
Amid the confusion and trauma she is confronted by the harsh reality of having to vacate the premises without delay to make way for the new President.
With astuteness Larrain works in the solace from a handful of loyal supporters, not least Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and confidante Nancy (Greta Gerwig).
Yet, the Chilean filmmaker and his screenwriter Noah Oppenheim might have on occasion allowed their artistic licence to stray beyond the bounds of propriety: often one is led to muse upon whether the First Widow is grieving for the death of a spouse or of a lifestyle.
During a conversation her screen-depiction has with the priest (John Hurt, outstanding), Jackie reflects on whether her insistence on a grand funeral is in fact for her own vanity.
Jackie is, nevertheless, a worthy addition to movies of the genre for, if nothing else, Portman’s performance is sterling. Her Jackie is beautiful and brittle, volatile and vulnerable, a double portrait of a woman holding with both hands an illustrious name as she did the name’s ruptured skull. Only, despite her wish for the presidency to be remembered by Camelot — that ‘one brief, shining moment’ — nobody ought to second-guess the character behind the conundrum.