All films about real, well-known people have a few hurdles to leap before they are even made. The first is whether or not there is a story fresh enough to be told. The other is who is cast. Then once the film is made, issues of impersonations, fabrications and liberties must be overcome. The amount of things that can go wrong is probably why when a biopic comes off for me, it comes off in a big way. Jackie is one of these.
Pablo Larrain, the Chilean director making his English-language debut, overcomes the first barrier quite easily, as the Kennedy Assassination, in fact the Kennedy’s in general, are endlessly fascinating to the general public. Everyone knows all the basics about the family and the events of their lives, but many aspects are still the subject of debate and confusion. Here Larrain poses the question- how did Jackie Kennedy, the definition of poise and dignity, deal with the tragic death of her husband?
Jackie’s tale is told through four simultaneous timelines. The first is shortly after the death of JFK, with a journalist (Billy Crudup, solid) visiting her home for an honest, upfront and hopefully publishable interview. The second is during the time immediately before, during and after the assassination in Dallas. The third is the aftermath and the organisation of her husband’s funeral. The last, and probably entirely unnecessary, is a reenactment of Jackie’s 1962 televised tour of the White House. The tour is continuously returned to and to be honest, I’m not sure why. Larrain clearly sees an importance in it that was completely lost on me. The other three sections however, work well together to show Jackie as a well-rounded person dealing with horrific circumstances as best she can.
The casting of the film was another potential stumbling post that Jackie successfully negotiates. Natalie Portman looks nothing like Jackie Kennedy, but makeup and styling can go a long way in sorting this out. What the best of the Hollywood arts departments can’t do is make an actor emote in a convincing and impactful way. Portman, possibly underrated throughout her career, imbues Jackie with nerves, doubts, regrets, confusion and of course grief. She manages to take a widely idolized woman and give her more depth, more edges and angles, than I would’ve thought possible. The accent helps, but it is Portman’s acting talent that makes this work.
Besides Portman, Jackie features a lot of very good actors who don’t get a lot to do. Peter Sarsgaard makes for a decent Bobby, the late John Hurt makes an impact as Jackie’s priest and Greta Gerwig provides a good sounding board as Jackie’s friend Nancy, but other than that, no one else really registers. It is the Natalie Portman show through and through, and the film probably benefits for it. Even JFK, played by lookalike Caspar Phillipson is barely noticeable here. It helps to keep the focus on Jackie and allow the audience to remain by her side at all times, as we try to empathize and understand what it may be like to be in her shoes.
Whether or not liberties have been taken with the story here isn’t hugely important, as the film is striving to paint a picture of a person, not an event. The Jackie here is dealing with not only losing her husband, but being forced to assess everything he was and everything he meant to her. She sees her husband as a great man but now questions what she was to him, and the questionable things he did in his private life. Did Jackie really have these concerns? Did she have meaningful talks with her Priest? Historical accuracy takes a back seat in this case as Larrain ensures his film is about the person going through the processes, not what exactly they were.
Larrain also puts a lot of style into the film, which combines with Portman’s performance to elevate it above standard biography fare. There is a heavy focus on closeups, generally of Jackie, that put the audience very much into her personal space, asking for empathy and/or sympathy. The almost complete emphasis on Jackie for an hour and a half doesn’t allow for the film to be anything other than an exploration of a particular person at a particular time in her life. But in this, it is an intriguing and intimate portrait and hugely successful on shining fresh light onto one of history’s most revered figures.