The polar opposite to the recently inaugurated President Trump, John F. Kennedy’s presidency was one built on hope, youth and equality, and was cut far too short by a bullet that put a stop to what could have been great changes. It’s no surprise then that American cinema, from Oliver Stone’s JFK to 2013’s Parkland, has constantly revisited his assassination, whether that be in exploring the conspiracy theories or meticulous details surrounding his death, or the impact his murder had on the American people. However, the latest film to be centred around one of history’s most iconic Presidents, Pablo Larraìn’s Jackie, is unlike any that have come before it. It’s his wife, Jackie Kennedy, who is the focus here, played by an almost-unrecognisable Natalie Portman in one of her finest roles to date. But whilst the lead performance is something special, possibly worthy of an Oscar win, the film itself is mixed bag.
Best described as a fractured look into the character of a displaced First Lady, you could almost take away the ‘first’ from that sentence without Jackie losing much of its substance. First and foremost, this is a story about a lady, a woman, who we see struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband in the days just after his death; it just so happens that this woman’s husband was the President of the United States.
The wider politics and implications of Kennedy’s death hardly come into play, unless it is in regretful and frustrated conversations between Jackie and Robert “Bobby” Kennedy – the future President who was to suffer the same fate as his brother – about stolen legacy and their place in history. Instead, the extent of the political intrigue in Jackie mainly revolves around the decoration of the White House. One of the many threads laced through Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay – the narrative constantly jumps from different points in Jackie’s recent life – is a guided televisual tour of the first lady’s newly decorated home. What seems quite trivial turns out to be far from it, and the way in which Jackie’s sense of identity is tied into the decor is just one of many ways in which Larraìn explores the character.
The problem is that this isn’t immediately obvious. For at least the first half of the film, the story and the central subject are virtually impenetrable. Just as she proves difficult to read for the journalist sent to interview her about her husband’s death, one minute proving perfectly polite and open, the next proving cold and defensive, even going as far as to tell him how she feels before saying she’ll never let him print that, it’s somewhat difficult to feel any kind of connection to the film for the best part of it.
But, as Jackie begins to warm up to her interviewer, we too begin to warm up to her in the later half. As the threads begin to tie together and as we begin to understand their relevance, and more importantly the full impact they have on the incredibly sad and deeply angry Jackie, it’s difficult not to warm up to the film itself in turn. In the end, there’s no denying its power and emotion, so it’s just a shame that these two separate parts, one cold, one warm, don’t sit together as neatly as I would have liked.
Fortunately, the one consistently good thing that the film has going for it is Natalie Portman, whose performance here is nothing short of career-defining. Even when the direction isn’t going exactly where you like, she manages to hold the whole thing together with her utterly heartbreaking turn as a wife and mother who is forced to reexamine her life after her loss. There are no big speeches to be made here, but she manages to convey so much emotion through saying hardly anything at all. But the biggest complement I could pay the performance is that through her poise and accent, it’s easy to forget that you are watching the Hollywood actress Natalie Portman on-screen and absolutely believe that she is Jackie Kennedy.
Portman aside, Jackie does boast some lovely cinematography that is intentionally made to feel of its time. But, for the most part, that’s just about where the good ends – for now, at least. Much like how it took a while for me to connect and feel something with the film, I get the distinct impression that it is one that may improve with time. As it stands, it’s just about okay, considerably elevated by the lead performance, but with future watches it could turn out to be something much more special than I am perhaps given it credit for now.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com