Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No) takes on the enigmatic figure of Jacqueline Kennedy (neé Bouvier; later Onassis) and the mythos of the “Camelot” years in Jackie. This visually stunning and finely textured film is a kind of elegy to a lost time and lost hope, while simultaneously providing an intimate portrait of the former First Lady.
The film uses a familiar framing device in which Kennedy (Natalie Portman) imparts her story to an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) only a week after John F. Kennedy’s brutal assassination in Dallas on 22 November 1963. From there, she flits back and forth in time, from the famous televised tour of the White House, to the fateful day in Dallas, to her grieving and trying to make funeral arrangements with (and sometimes, in competition with) JFK’s brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard).
Despite a large cast list, there are really only three or four main characters – Jackie, Bobby, Jackie’s assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and the journalist. The remaining characters drift in and out of the film, providing context or conflict, as Larraín’s portrait of the deeply bereft Jackie unfolds. As such, this is not a film with a conventional linear plot – or perhaps any plot at all. That will undoubtedly irk those who like a more structured narrative drive, but I found this swirling film almost hypnotically engrossing.
As presented in the film, Jackie is the ultimate unreliable narrator. At one point, she tells the journalist stony-faced that she doesn’t smoke, while smoking a cigarette. She also tells him a personal anecdote, then immediately denies having said anything of the sort. The point of all this (I think) is not an attempt to recreate what went on in the actual interview (which was conducted by LIFE Magazine writer Theodore H White) but rather to make the point that public persona and private emotions can be two very different things. Contrast that with Jackie’s searingly intimate conversations with a priest played by John Hurt. Larraín also invokes (perhaps in reference to Jackie’s faith) elements of Catholic iconography – with one scene in the Dallas section resembling a modernised version of the Pieta – as well as several clever call-backs to other scenes in the film.
Like its subject, Jackie is a protean exercise, which is to say it morphs into many guises as it progresses. While the focus is on Jackie’s inner turmoil, it’s also a history lesson of sorts, a family drama and, as mentioned, a paean to a lost age. This can be disconcerting at times, but Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant) keep things tight for the most part. The exception however is the ending of the film, which suffers from “multiple ending syndrome”. After the big dramatic moment, the film meanders on for another 15 minutes or so. Given the rather fractured narrative, it could easily have been re-ordered (in particular, by moving Jackie’s long discussion with the priest to an earlier point) to much better dramatic effect.
Natalie Portman is excellent in her portrayal of the titular character. Of course, no one can ever really know what Jackie Kennedy went through; but Portman’s performance gives a powerful and sympathetic rendering of the bereaved First Lady. It’s certainly a performance of light and shade, with Portman capturing not only her grief, but also her vivacity in the scenes depicting events before November 1963. Billy Crudup is understandably subdued as the journalist (who is, after all, more of a plot device than a character as such). Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig are also fine as Bobby Kennedy and Nancy Tuckerman respectively; while John Hurt has some good moments as the priest in whom Jackie confides. Although the remainder of the cast have limited screen time, many make an impact; notably Richard E. Grant as White House aide Bill Walton, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon Johnson, Beth Grant as Lady Bird Johnson, and Caspar Phillipson who bears an uncanny resemblance to JFK.
Although it is a demanding film in many ways, Jackie is a triumph for Larraín. Those seeking historical accuracy or political intrigue may be disappointed; but for those prepared to take a deep dive into the psychology and personality of one of the defining figures of the 20th Century, this is a brilliant evocation.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Peter Sarsgaard
Release Date: 12th January, 2017
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television