Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first film outside his home country (and shot virtually back-to-back with Neruda, another non-biopic about a misunderstood figure), this longtime-coming study of how Jackie Kennedy responded to the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy is held together by a startling performance by Natalie Portman, who goes beyond mere chameleonic imitation and offers something truly emotionally wrenching.
Framed by a device wherein Portman’s Jackie gives an interview to an unnamed journalist played by Billy Crudup (who’s meant to be Theodore H. White from Life) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, we then cut to Jackie on Air Force One and in that familiar pink suit on November 22, 1963, and get our first subtle glimpse of JFK’s murder. Noah Oppenheim’s script then leaps back and forth to the interview, the aftermath of that terrible day and a TV special from 1961 in which Natalie is FXed not-quite-seamlessly into the B+W footage, and she delivers a characterisation that includes some of the most devastating moments from her entire career.
Jackie is shown as a woman traumatised beyond belief, yet angry and defiant, as she shields her two children and refuses to give in to the frightening unease that was gripping America (and perhaps never truly let go), and while she’s given support by Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and White House Social Secretary and valued friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), many others fear for her – or fear her, as if her grief is contagious. Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is gruff (upon seeing Lee Harvey Oswald killed live on TV he half-whispers, “This is making us look like a bunch of goddamn barbarians!”), staffer Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) tries to convince her she’s in danger and an unnamed priest (John Hurt, excellent) attempts to discuss faith with her, although she often shoves it right back in his grizzled face.
With a nerve-jangling score from Mica Levi (who worked on the disturbing pseudo-sci-fi Under The Skin) and clever use of archival film, as when Portman’s Jackie looks out a car window during the funeral procession and the crowd reflected back is the actual one from November 25, 1963, this stretches it a touch towards the end with satirical talk of the other great Presidents sure to come in the decades beyond, and yet Natalie more than makes up for it. And mercifully there’s no mention of ‘The C Word’ (Conspiracy!), as this wasn’t directed by Oliver Stone and, as the title demonstrates, is all about Jackie, whose life changed forever in a heartbeat.
Rated MA, Jackie is in selected cinemas now.