In political boundaries, legacy is everything. As Donald Trump quite assiduously begins to dismantle that of Barack Obama in America, it’s a timely film that examines how it can be that those left behind may make or break the legend. This is the mantle taken by Chilean director Pablo Larraín in his first English-language film.
Jackie depicts the shattered existence of Jacqueline Kennedy (pre-Onassis, post-Bouvier) in the wake of her husband: President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Arguably, JFK’s murder at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald remains the best known facet of his cruelly shortened term in office. Whereas Spielberg granted Abraham Lincoln, the similarly terminated POTUS, a majority of his biopic’s screen-time (Lincoln), Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) is rendered a cameo in his own remembered story. Instead, Natalie Portman takes centre stage in the title role on both a literal and cinematographic level. From the moment of that bullet, Jackie embodies the emotional torment of its lead, with a timeline fragmenting to shards across the film. Kennedy’s interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) frames strands from before, during and after the events of the 22nd November, disclosing Jackie’s fear that her husband will soon be ‘just another oil portrait lying in these hallways’. Love drives her desire for the perfect closure; she wants JFK canonised as Lincoln more so than Garfield or McKinley.
‘And how would you like him to be remembered Mrs Kennedy?’ It is Jackie who depicts her ‘own version of what happened’ and little doubt is left that such a reading is idealised. Camelot and the legend of King Arthur are the inspirations for painting her husband anew. ‘Don’t think for one second that I’m going to let you publish that’ Kennedy tells White in a dictation of her permitted history – ‘I don’t smoke’ she purrs in a cloud of the stuff. Portman is outstanding in the role of widow, rising surely to give the best performance of her career to date. Bringing the tortured fragility she carried so well in Darren Aranofsky’s (who produces this) Black Swan, here she adds a skeleton of steel, underlining Jackie’s determination and willpower. ‘Must get this right. Must get this right’ she mantras. In one scene Jackie tosses aside a china doll, breaking it in the process. So pale and delicate Portman appears, and with so remarkable cheekbones, it is easy to fear that the same could befall her at the merest knock. Equally stunning is Mica Levi’s string-based soundtrack. Whilst being every bit as emotionally expressive as it needs to be, it is its dazzling moments of spiralling glissando surreality that capture best the collapsing inner soul. Combined with a utilisation of predominantly close up shots, all in a marvellously effective 1.66:1 old-style aspect ratio – and on 16mm film too (which is to say, celluloid and not digital) – Jackie is gorgeous.
This excellence in cinematography is more than matched by the film’s production design, styling and makeup. In one sequence Larraín juxtaposes the battle-readying of Jackie ahead of that fateful trip, applying lipstick before an appropriately three-faced mirror, with her removing the blood of her husband from that same face before that same mirror. The assassination, when it does come in its entirety, is a harrowing one; but it’s the image of Portman stumbling and stained in red on pink through the White House which stings hardest.
Intensely intimate, Jackie is a film of few sweeping motions and justifiably so. In tightening the frame, and filling it almost exclusively with Portman, Larraín invokes a real notion of insight. Occasionally it could be said that Jackie slightly overplays its hand with broader lines and imagery – although, with the deck it has you can hardly blame it. Likewise, the film’s concluding notes, a series of potential ‘final’ shots, almost seem to lack the resolve in knowing exactly know when it should end. A consolation being that their eventual choice is a worthy one.
Late in the film there is a scene in which Jackie observes from a car mannequins being displayed within a shop window. Each is a stylistic match for Kennedy herself, right down to her dark hair. The message is clear: Jacqueline Kennedy was an icon and waxwork in public persona. If Larraín achieves anything here it is to reveal a woman of compelling depth beneath the porcelain shell. Actress that Jackie so emphatically is, we many never know the true individual but herein lies the complexity of her humanity.