The political landscape in the United States is at the very forefront of the world’s media right now. With this in mind, it seems most apt that a presentation of the presidential family which ushered in the televisual age has arrived in theatres, however in the meticulous hands of Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, such a work is in no way coincidental. You might be fooled into thinking that Jackie is just another biographical film, or a decadent example of pure, unadulterated Oscar bait, but this is no ordinary picture. This forensically intimate and uncompromisingly piercing exploration of grief, empire, and morality is monumental filmmaking: the type that beautifully and brutally underpins the human condition whilst offering a sobering recollection of an iconic historical event.
Shrinking the scale of US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination down to a finite seven day setting, Jackie benefits from a far tighter, more compact narrative framework. The film operates around the now renowned interview with Life Magazine conducted by Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) in which he probes First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) about the life, influence, and murder of her husband, who was shot dead by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963 as his motorcade passed through the city of Dallas. Larraín’s picture – immaculately penned by Noah Oppenheim – then branches out as we explore Jackie’s clustered, clouded memories. We shift from sequences of the shooting to moments spent inside the cars and aeroplane which transported the casket, from moments dwelling on the organisation of the funeral, both public and private services, to sepia-soaked broadcasts as she tours The White House showcasing her interior design and décor to television cameras.
Ultimately Jackie finds primary rhythm in the mere days following her husband’s assassination, and how this heinous act of crime and treachery against the Star Spangled Banner saw the collapse of her emotional foundation: the sanctuary of her home, the privilege of her political position, the wellbeing of her two young children, the validity of her impact upon her nation. Largely shot within invasive, close frames, Larraín enables his film to absorb every drop of pain and helplessness on offer. This creative style amplifies the strain of the situation, demystifying the glamorously composed legend of Jackie Kennedy by presenting something far more complex, and compellingly human. An aggressively exposing sequence in which Portman’s lead weeps as she removes John’s blood from her face with a washcloth is utterly devastating; so desperately powerful and profound, so heavy with yearning and despair. Such an arresting visual design only heightens the potent language of the film, which is furthered by immaculate digital photography from Stéphane Fontaine, who somehow renders a icy crispness to imagery of softening warmth, such as the archive material.
As we know, cinema is an audio-visual medium, and the exploration of sound on offer is quite frankly majestic. Mica Levi’s hauntingly ambient score ripples through dead silences with ferocious intent, before erupting with operatic potency during the larger set pieces. Her percussion and strings silently slink, menacingly burrowing their way into the blackened recesses of your psyche, leaving you shook and compelled long after you exit the auditorium. Paired with the exquisite sound mixing and design, Jackie builds an audible kaleidoscope of fractured hope which freezes with its glacial intent.
The collective performances are universally brilliant, with particularly impressive work from the aforementioned Crudup, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley who advises the bereaved widow during the funeral process, and Richard E. Grant as US Commission of Fine Arts chairman William Walton. However the entirety of the narrative weight is burdened upon Portman’s slender shoulders, and she delivers an utterly astonishing portrait indeed. The complexities of this role are so apparent and yet so subtle, with the finite details easily missable if your attention isn’t entirely fixated.
She is incredible at channelling the frustration and turmoil of someone who is processing the grief of not only the loss of a husband, but the death of a life that she is no longer destined to lead. Her detachment to her title compels her to pour all efforts into the bloated spectacle of the funeral as a coping mechanism. Through her determination and strong-will, we see the gaping vulnerability; wounds so raw they sting to the touch. Portman is playing so many more strings than the titular character: she is harnessing the human version, the heightened version for the rolling cameras, and the political version as she endeavours to prolong her husband’s importance as Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is frantically rushed into office. This is a role of tremendous detail and decorum, prudence and poetry; Portman renders this universally-established historical figure into a work of Shakespearian tragedy, and the results are simply majestic. And to think, some people actually feel Emma Stone deserves to win the Oscar…
Jackie is a work of confrontational and observational genius. Across its brisk and audacious 100 minute running time, it achieves something remarkable: retelling a highly-documented proceeding in a juxtaposed and invigoratingly unique manner by uncovering the seemingly hidden nakedness of the women who suffered through its aftermath. Larraín’s latest is a daringly lyrical and aesthetically divergent piece which – like its central subject – will be recalled for many years to come.
Jackie is out now in UK and US cinemas.