Natalie Portman as Jackie

Film Review | Jackie is a Visceral Watch, But Can It Transcend The Limitations of the Biopic?

Films that are sold based on a star’s strong central performance can send alarms bells ringing. It can seem as worthy as someone going on about just how God damn organic their food is. It’s all well and good but is it in the service of anything more, anything enjoyable?

‘Enjoyable’ isn’t quite the word but Jackie is, in its own calculated way, a very interesting movie.

Natalie Portman’s performance as a Jackie Kennedy dealing with the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination comes across, at first, as studied and affected. That’s not a bad thing. While it is indeed heavy on the bizarre accent and practised mannerisms, it is worth remembering that it is a portrayal of a woman whose demenour was studied, affected, and heavy on practised mannerisms. Portman dodges making this an impression and manages to turn in a genuinely remarkable portrayal of someone whose grief, shock, and pain is pouring out from under a prim and proper exterior. More than buying her as Jackie Kennedy you buy her as someone who’s trying really hard to keep her shit together.

Jackie (2016) -
Jackie (2016). Source

The film uses a conventional narrative framing device as we see the recent widow being interviewed by a journalist in a palatial rural house. We are given flashbacks to the events before, during and after JFK’s death in Dallas. As Portman puffs away on a fresh cigarette she tells the flustered journo ‘I don’t smoke’. The message is understood. This is about presenting a face to the world.

Director Pablo Larraín then manages to either work within or against conventional biopic tropes. The 16mm image is reminiscent of both newsreel and French New waves films of the time. Long but ultimately un-showy shots, such as Portman using a vanity mirror to clean and smear her husband’s fresh blood from her face, linger in the mind. While John F. Kennedy does appear in flashbacks, his presence is mostly felt by his absence. It’s an effective and disconcerting choice. One moment where we, along with the newly made widow, almost stumble onto a glimpse of her husband’s body postmortem is a horrific jolt. Both Larraín and Portman play it perfectly. Much of the conversation around this film will be dedicated to its lead’s performance but, credit where it’s due, the strong directorial voice elevates this above standard Oscar-bait fare.

Credit too, to the supporting cast which is filled out by the likes of Greta Gerwig, John Hurt and Richard E. Grant. Peter Sarsgaard stands out in a crowded field for his take on Bobby Kennedy. He’s trying to be there for Jackie and his brother’s children while he is, understandably, also going through some stuff of his own.

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This isn’t all good. The score, especially during the first half, is overbearing to no apparent purpose and there’s an attempt to turn the funeral arrangements into a ‘will they, wont they’ tension builder that feels overly telegraphed and predictable. What may be more divisive, though, is that after going to some dark places the story ultimately decides to let the light in, in what some may find to be the script reaching for easy answers to all the difficult questions raised.

That’s an uncharitable reading. I’m ready to guess there’s more ambiguity to the movie than may be apparent at first. There’s enough going on here so that you’ll carry the film with you afterwards. This isn’t the story of one woman overcoming circumstance. Well, it is but it isn’t just that. More than an A-lister playing dress up, Jackie is a mixture of visceral emotions, blood and ideas.

Jackie is in Irish cinemas from January 20th. 

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