This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017
4.5 stars, Rated M, 99 mins
The first thing that strikes you when watching Natalie Portman on screen as Jackie Kennedy is that the actress must have done her homework. Portman, an Oscar winner for Black Swan who has forged a reputable career since she debuted at age 12 in Leon: The Professional, took a break from Hollywood to complete a psychology degree at Harvard because she considers being smart more important than being famous. And so, if the strangely accented, halting drawl comes across as a bit mannered in her evocation of JFK’s First Lady, rest assured that Portman will have worked tirelessly for this role, and what we’re seeing is the real deal.
Jackie is a strange sort of biopic in many ways. Principally, it doesn’t seek to tell the tale from the beginning – we learn nothing of how the socialite met her prince and established the house of Camelot. Instead, the film focuses on the days surrounding JFK’s assassination in Dallas, skipping between Jackie’s interview with a dispassionate reporter (a steely and terrific Billy Crudup) as she conjures up recollections of that dreadful day, and a depiction of the actual event and its immediate aftermath.
With a great cast and evident dedication to accurately relaying history, it’s an often devastating watch. Portman’s superb performance as distraught widow is underscored by the tension between her right to privately grieve and a lack of time in which to do it. The brutal haste with which JFK is succeeded is galling: Vice President and Lady Johnson (a perfect John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) make excellent villains as Jackie witnesses his swearing in as President on Air Force One mere hours after the shooting, while she stands dazed in the background.
The other thing that marks Jackie out is director Pablo Larrain’s very particular style of filmmaking. Shot on 16mm film, every frame looks like archive footage from the period (excepting the small quibble that Portman is too beautiful to truly convince as the albeit stylish Jackie O), and several scenes are recreated shot for shot from clips you can view for yourself on YouTube. The production design of the White House and, of course, Jackie’s signature suits are spot-on, while her staffers (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, both terrific) and brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) perfectly embody the 1960s in their speech and attitudes.
But above all, this is Portman’s film. With tangible pain, she portrays a woman preoccupied by her husband’s legacy and reputation, while clearly drowning in grief. There is nothing as lonely as the sight of the former First Lady wandering vacantly around the White House in a pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. Harrowing and fascinating, Jackie is a beautiful, painful throwback to a terrible moment in history.