The moment the film starts and we get to hear the first pieces of Mica Levi’s atonal and eerie score, it seems as though this may be more than your typical historical drama – as we progress, perhaps less so. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is a tour de force for its lead actress, but structural problems mean it is not as solid as it could be.
Jackie is an intimate portrait of one of the most important and tragic events in American history, seen through the eyes of one of its iconic figures. In the days after the assassination of her husband, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) sits down with a reporter (Billy Crudup) to discuss her life in the White House, the murder itself and the aftermath. We see how she maintains her extraordinary dignity and poise in the face of unspeakable tragedy, and follow her psychology as she battles to ensure her husband’s legacy and the life they had built for themselves in their own personal Camelot.
With a film of this kind, whether or not it succeeds is in effect down to the actor playing the person it chronicles. In Jackie, Portman does a fine job as the First Lady, with the scenes of her processing her grief particularly effective (those tend to be the only ones where she’s alone – this movie’s style of developing her character is in the interactions she has with others). She has, though, effected a rather distracting accent – presumably one similar to the real Jackie, but it gets in the way of things – but that’s the only real flaw to point out with her – this is a very strong performance.
Portman does carry the picture throughout, although I think Peter Sarsgaard delivers the best performance as JFK’s brother Bobby – he too is dealing with grief, but is also faced with his dwindling political influence on top. Other actors do fine, but they aren’t too important in the grand scheme – familiar faces include Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch and the late John Hurt as William Walton, President Johnson and an Irish priest.
The structure of this film is such that it is essentially two films, and one of these is a lot better than the other. The larger, meatier portion of the film recounts the past – Jackie Kennedy’s life, the assassination, the funeral and events surrounding it – and this is the vastly more enjoyable part of the film. It’s competently done, and Jackie’s interactions with the others around serve to shape her for the audience (her character and her personality), be it Greta Gerwig’s Nancy (in whom we see the motherly side) or Hurt’s priest (in whom we see the darkness inside her). It’s standard autobiographical fare, but it is well done.
However, there is a framing device around the film which continues to infringe upon the main narrative and detrimentally impacts the proceedings. Frequently, these interludes serve to repeat the things we’ve just seen, or will see, and Jackie repeatedly says that the reporter shan’t be allowed to write it. The emotional impact of some of the movie’s key moments is lessened because the film insists on taking us away from them to cut back to this framing device – it really does take you out of it. The point of this is because, at the end, the film wants to make a point about historical figures and their legacies, but the value isn’t enough to warrant this structure.
It seems somewhat ironic that this movie is so focused on the idea of legacy, it has actively sabotaged its own by using a structure that impacts on the emotions and the drama of the picture. Portman is good, and hers is a deserving nomination for Best Actress, but the film itself is nothing particularly special, in part because it’s trying to be.
Director: Pablo Larrain
Cast: Natalie Portman (Jackie Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Bobby Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup (The Journalist), John Hurt (The Priest), Richard E. Grant (Bill Walton)
Running Time: 100 Mins