This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Following the assassination of her husband, John F Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy is left to pick up the pieces as she is forced to confront both the past and the future and what it means for her family, her faith and her role as the protector of a legacy violently ripped apart on that fateful day in Dallas.
What we thought
Jackie is sure to disappoint you if you go in expecting anything even remotely approaching your average Hollywood biopic. It really is nothing of the sort. Directed by acclaimed Chilean director, Pablo Lorrain (No, Neruda), and, unbelievably, written by Noah Oppenheimer whose only other screenplay credits to date have been Maze Runner and Allegiant, Jackie clearly hews much closer to the work of the former than the latter, as neither its major Hollywood lead actress nor its being in the English language ever manage to obscure just how much it feels like a foreign-language art-house film.
It's a film that has very little in the way of an external plot; focusing far less on the events going on around the widow Kennedy than on her state of mind at the time. It's a thoroughly internalized look at the mind of an undeniably complex woman struggling to make sense of world-altering events that left her personally adrift, on the one hand, while shaking an entire nation, on the other.
Yes, there are tidbits about Kennedy's vice president, Linden Johnson, being sworn as president; the hunt for (alleged) assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Mrs Kennedy's needing to vacate the White House to make way for the new First Family and even a brief but brutal look at the assassination itself but, intriguingly, the one historical event that the film primarily focuses on is the decision of whether or not to have the funeral preceded by a walking procession in the streets. For a normal historical drama this might seem a rather odd decision but, for the sake of a fiercely character-driven work like Jackie, it provides all the impetus that is needed to explore the mind of its protagonist in rich thematic detail.
Not that Jackie falls into the trap of overly expository dialogue: it tells us as much about Jackie Kennedy through what isn't said as what is. Even the film's one concession to convention, which involves the whole story being framed by an interview that Kennedy gives to a journalist some months after the events of the assassination and its immediate aftermath, is defined far more by her prickly evasiveness than the actual answers she provides.
As much as anything else, the Jackie Kennedy presented here isn't so much a mess of contradictions as she is the result of so much being expected of her in so many different roles that it's as if her real self is buried under several levels of, what can only be described as, perfectly calibrated performances. This is reflected quite explicitly in the writing but far more intriguingly in Natalie Portman's exceptional performance as the former First Lady.
When we first meet her in the role, Portman comes across as incredibly mannered, giving the impression of getting lost in the very precise way that the real Jacqueline Kennedy spoke but as the film rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear that that initial appearance is effectively a performance of a performance. Kennedy, at least according to the film, clearly alternates how she presents herself depending on whom she is talking to at any given moment.
Her interview with the journalist (played with steeliness of his own by Billy Crudup) finds her at her most defensive so the extremely measured way she behaves here stands in stark and yet subtle contrast to the way she is with her closest aid, where she is far more natural and warm, and how she is in the public spotlight, where she is the picture of the demure 1950s/ early '60s housewife. And underlying all of this is a history of personal tragedy that is revealed as the film goes on. Portman navigates these changes with supreme command of her acting skills, never going for the obvious gesture but instead modulating her own performance in a way that is even more masterful than the writing itself could possibly have suggested. It might be her strangest performance to date but it may well be her best.
For all this, though, the film elevates itself from merely an intriguing art-house film with an exceptional lead performance into something that truly lingers in the memory thanks to three particular scenes. The first of these finds Jackie Kennedy walking dreamily through the residence of the White House with the old show tune, Camelot, playing in its entirety, is an incredible moment of wordless cinema that singlehandedly captures everything the film has to say purely through a mixture of Portman's body language; stunning, single-shot cinematography and perfect music accompaniment. It is, by turns, haunting, intriguing and heartbreaking and acts as the perfect centrepiece of the entire film.
The other two scenes both involve the late, oh so great, John Hurt as Kennedy's priest to whom she divulges all her fears and reservations – especially surrounding her faith. These are unquestionably the most explicit scenes in terms of spelling out exactly what's going on with her but, even here, genuine emotion, subtle writing and faultless acting ensure that these pivotal, powerful scenes never descend into either trite sentimentality or obvious exposition.
Jackie is, undoubtedly, not a film for everyone and, if “art films” aren't usually your thing, you would do well to know exactly what kind of film this is before plunking down your hard earned cash on a cinema ticket. For me, though, Jackie stands as one of the best films in a quality awards season and one that both subverted and far exceeded my personal expectations.