An admirable attempt to place an unconventional twist on the traditional biopic, Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larraín) is a stunning film that aims to shed light on a largely (and surprisingly) under-explored public figure in recent American history. With a focus on Jackie Kennedy’s perspective of her husband’s assassination; the narrative centres itself around an interview scenario in which Jackie (Natalie Portman) recalls her memories of pinnacle moments in the aftermath of the shooting, with the result being a richly layered portrait of a woman intent on placing her emotions aside for the sake of preserving JFK’s presidential legacy.
Perhaps not the biopic many would have expected, Jackie manages to deviate from the preconceived ideas that attached themselves to a film involving content heavily associated with conspiracy theories and explicit violence (thanks to films like Oliver Stone’s JFK). Instead, what Larraín offers up is a tender film that shows preference for recreating its titular character’s famed poise and air of self control, rather than opting towards grand character revelations or messy autobiographical details, regardless of all its artistic license.
In its recycling of the typical biopic formula of having Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) engage in an interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup), the film sets up its own retrospective narrative that allows for its episodic fragmentation to act not only as a cohesive means of storytelling, but as a methodical way to maintain its slow-burning pace. The division of Jackie’s memories into these neat segments simultaneously allows Larraín to explore the public, private, psychological and spiritual elements that make up her character; whilst the jumps between different time-frames allow for a gradual build-up of emotional resonance, rather than pandering to the audiences’ expectation of being plied with aggressively emotional presentations of a woman in mourning.
Nevertheless, Jackie is a film completely underpinned by raw emotions. This is partly down to the director’s penchant for intelligent, intricately spun stories where the characters show themselves through a number of lenses—in this case the inclusion of casual and formal relationships between the former first lady and her assistants, relatives, her priest, and indeed her interviewer—but also through the sheer calibre of the acting. Rather than merely adding mainstream appeal to Larraín’s first English-language film, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy is perhaps her best performance to date. On one hand, she’s as polished and primed as the intricately designed White House interiors she has accumulated, and on the other she’s a devastated widow, with children to console and matters of state to manage alongside her own feelings of grief.
The poignancy of Portman’s performance is only emphasised in its placement alongside Stéphane Fontaine’s striking visuals. With the intent of creating a film that mirrors its protagonist’s measured presence, it’s no surprise that the film’s visuals follow suit—with an assortment of sweeping landscape/interior shots mixed with tight close-ups of Jackie’s turmoil to heighten tension and emotional resonance.
What’s particularly refreshing about Jackie is its consistency in this reverent, controlled presentation. Where other films, such as JFK, have tended towards a visceral violence that fixates on showcasing the actual assassination with explicit gore; Jackie refrains from this blatancy. In place of continuous bloodshed, we’re presented with a subtle kind of violence that appears more of an accessory to the plot than a core element of the story—with scenes of her washing her husband’s blood out of her hair resulting in an emotional resonance rather than simple shock factor. This is true even of the film’s depiction of the zapruder film; as despite the sequence’s explicit gore, the focus is still anchored in Jackie’s actions and reactions, which attaches a heart-wrenching sympathy and allows the scene to deviate away from seeming as if it’s pandering towards the audience expectation of graphic violence.
Another great aspect of the film is its fantastic soundtrack, with it’s dark and swooping gravitas that punctuates the film’s emotional tension with a melancholic vibrancy. It works cohesively with the film’s visuals in such a way that heightens its resonance and matches the pacing without distracting from everything else the film has to offer.
All in all, Jackie is an extremely poignant film, that manages to be as emotionally impactful as it is refreshing. Rather than re-hashing the already exhausted assassination footage and conspiracy belief that have become synonymous with JFK, Larraín’s decision to focus on Jackie Kennedy allows for a unique vantage point that appears not only individualistic, but entirely intriguing in its portrayals.
Notwithstanding its dubious historical accuracy and its sporadic elements of cliché, Jackie is an interesting experiment in creating a multi-dimensional character study that has no real moral or message in its story. There isn’t any actual feelings of closure or resolution in Jackie. Instead, what we are left with is a series of images that emote a deep resonance in their crushingly realistic depictions of a woman’s suffering.