When it was announced that Natalie Portman would be playing Jackie Kennedy in a film, I honestly did not think too much of it. I had zero expectations until I saw the trailer for Jackie and immediately, the film became a must-see. There was something hypnotic about the trailer, it’s rapid successions of shots hinted at a visually striking and emotionally powerful film. Plus, it stated right away that this wasn’t a biopic where we’d get Jackie Kennedy’s entire life story. Instead, Jackie focuses on the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Told in flashbacks through an interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), Jackie (Natalie Portman) discusses her grief and the struggles to cement the legacy of her husband. It is thanks to this brief look into an event in her life, that Jackie as a film reaches unexpectedly profound heights.
First and foremost, let’s discuss Chilean director Pablo Larraín. His direction in this film is absolutely astounding. The way he frames the scenes from simple moments with characters speaking to one another, to more intricate shots like Kennedy’s funeral march carry a symmetry and creative quality that renders them into living paintings. Almost every single shot in the film can be taken out and put in a museum. There is an intricacy at play here, the framing of elements within the shot is always deliberate and even when characters drift in and out of the frame, the intent and message is palpable. Because the film deals with grief and Jackie’s personal turmoil, the film presents a reality where beauty and despair has a certain gloss that is askew. One almost gets the sense that Jackie herself is drifting between life and death, and sometimes the lure of death reigns over life. I’m reminded of a scene where Jackie is looking for a place to bury her husband. She walks in the cemetery and all around her are tombstones as far as the eye can see, the graves only disappear in the drowning fog. This scene perfectly captures her state of mind, and visually eludes at the utter disarming nature of constantly being surrounded by death.
This notion of death looming over Jackie is also represented to magnificent effect in the soundtrack of the film. When I read Mica Levi’s name in the credits, I was in utter disbelief and at the same time it made total sense. Levi composed the superb soundtrack of Under the Skin, which is if nothing else a total assault of dread on the ears. That soundtrack is genuinely difficult to listen to in one sitting, but it is effective. Likewise, her composition for Jackie are effective but for different reasons. There is a degree of splendour and fancy in the orchestration of the songs. They convey class and elitism, but at same time they contain elements that distort the gloss, elements that shatter that pristine image of control. This soundtrack simultaneously shows the artifice and reveals the truth underneath. It is unnerving and haunting, it alludes to something otherworldly while also revealing the rising vulnerability of Jackie. At times the soundtrack feels like an eulogy, an eulogy for the fall of an ideal, an eulogy for the death of faith. It is constantly punctuated by moments that make you question the vanity of Jackie, and reveal in the process the real human being underneath the legacy. Mica Levi crafted an audial landscape that is breathtaking, and that deserves all the praise.
I must also praise editor Sebastián Sepúlveda. Jackie is a film that jumps back and forth in time and if it wasn’t for Sepúlveda’s capable hands, the film would’ve been terribly confusing. When jumps in time occur without any rupture to thought and sentiment, that’s when you know the film is doing things correctly. This is especially significant in this film, because much of the flashbacks occur as a train of thought. They follow Jackie, almost like they are a visual proxy of her mind which is constantly shifting from one thing to another. Sepúlveda makes it all coherent and aids the viewer in learning more about Jackie who she is, why she is that way and how her mind behaves.
Before we talk about Natalie Portman, there are two other cast members I'd like praise. Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy and he is so brilliant in the role, that I honestly wish Pablo Larraín makes another film focusing exclusively on Bobby. Sarsgaard lose weight for the role, but beyond on that he embodies the anchor to Natalie Portman's Jackie. He is her one real support system, and every scene between them is great. The grief and regret is dripping from his every expression, and he is the one character in the film that reveals the artifice of Jackie's vanity. It's a powerful performance. Then there is the legendary John Hurt who plays The Priest. Because of his character, he has amongst the best and most thoughtful lines in the entire film. He delivers them with a gravitas that is unmatched. Interestingly enough though, there is something refreshing about his approach to his character seems to relish the existential debate he's having with Jackie. There's no malice in it, of course, but he presents us a priest who has accepted the harsh reality of existence and doesn't try to sugar-coat the unending struggle.
But, of course, Jackie wouldn’t be such a powerful film if it wasn’t for Natalie Portman’s performance. From a visual standpoint, Natalie Portman perfectly nails Jackie Kennedy. A lot of this is thanks to make-up and costume department, but Portman embodies those elements to such an eerily similar degree that when the film switches to actual footage of Jackie Kennedy, it’s difficult to distinguish them. The way she positions her body both when speaking to reporters to having a heart to heart with Bobby Kennedy, it all conveys a honest representation of Jackie. Portman changes her voice and the results are a bit creepy, if I’m honest, just because they sound too similar. That’s the point though and a lot of the effectiveness of her performance comes down to that voice. Beyond those aspects, Portman excels in the quiet moments. She expresses a vulnerability and inner turmoil that is depressing, evocative, compelling and empathetic. There’s a sincerity in her performance, a genuine sense of tragedy that really affects you. Furthermore, the subtlety in her performance also shines in moments of true unfairness like the Vice-President being sworn in just minutes after Kennedy died. His body isn’t cold yet and already Jackie is being discarded. It alludes to conspiracies that perhaps it was in the interest of the U.S. government to get rid of the Kennedys.
Jackie is by far one of the best films I’ve seen recently. Director Pablo Larraín has crafted a visually awe-inspiring film with majestic shots. The film feels like walking through a painting drenched in despair, it shows how death can distort the atmosphere and surround the characters in utter gloom. Powered by a terrific soundtrack by Mica Levi and outstanding performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie is an incredible film. Instead of following the tired trend of most biopics, Jackie centres on a single event and is effectively capable of giving us a more truthful and genuine look at Jackie Kennedy. The film examines grief in a devastating and uncompromising way, affecting you time and time again. It brings to mind the question of legacy, what death does to an ideal and how can we preserve an ideal of hope when succumbing to despair is so easy. Jackie becomes more philosophical and existential as it grows closer to the end. It makes for a fascinating discussion, it gives us insight into a figure that is only known superficially and makes us reexamine the real consequences of standing for change.