Let me begin this review by letting you know that the trailer for Jackie is probably one of the best trailers I have ever seen. Before the majesty of La La Land, I was treated to 90 seconds of perfectly scored, expertly executed teaser footage that gave me goosebumps and left me reeling. The tone created in that short trailer was so quietly vicious, so fragile, so glass shatteringly tense, that I thought Pablo Larraín wouldn’t possibly be able to maintain that level of intensity throughout. Or could he?
Goodness gracious, he could, he absolutely could. Using a famous interview published in Life magazine as its anchor point, Jackie follows the story of iconic First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), both in snippets of her time in the White House and the event and aftermath of the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy (played by Caspar Phillipson) in 1963. Rather than being a straight forward play by play of events, which given the subject matter would no doubt have been suitably fascinating, the film takes on an almost psychological horror tone, helped by a quite brilliantly menacing score by Mica Levi. The audience is invited, or rather forced, to see a different side to Jackie, the grief, the confusion, the stoicism, the heartbreak, the bubbling rage that simmered beneath the elegant Chanel suit. As a nation mourns the loss of a leader, our protagonist sets about planning a funeral that would ensure Kennedy be remembered like Abraham Lincoln, not forgotten like other assassinated presidents Andrew Garfield and William McKinley, but as the narrative progresses the lines between paying homage to her husband and satisfying her own vanity begin to blur.
The most remarkable and striking aspect of Jackie is its relentlessly pinched and tense tone, which elevates it from a simple biographical drama to something much harder to fit into comfortable genre confines. As I alluded to above, there genuinely are times, especially when the score kicks in, that the bubbling tension of the plot approaches the realm of psychological horror. To witness a figure like Jackie Kennedy, somebody who has throughout history come to be regarded as a symbol of elegance and grace, walk the ever thinning tightrope of poise and sanity, is a thrilling and in parts terrifying experience. Though the narrative never crosses the line in to any kind of supernatural or mind bending territory, the sheer veracity and tense nature of the on screen proceedings brings to mind another Natalie Portman masterpiece, Black Swan. Let me be clear, nobody in Jackie is sprouting feathers and performing sex acts with a metaphorical version of themselves, but there is something about the restrained rage, the extreme fragility, the aching undertone of sadness that makes the film absolutely unique and brilliant.
The beating heart of the film is undoubtedly the absolutely exceptional performance by Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy. It must be a terrible burden to portray a character so intimately recognised and regarded for both her aesthetic look and her voice, but in working to embody rather than imitate, Portman gives a stunning turn from head to voice box to toe. Too many current actresses struggle with portraying even two different emotions simultaneously, but here Portman is juggling anywhere from 4 to 47 conflicting layers to the character at any one time, and it truly is a rare pleasure to watch. Admittedly, I have still yet to see two of the five Oscar nominated performances for Best Actress, and though I feel like the whimsical nostalgia of La La Land may carry Emma Stone to victory, I very much doubt that any of the other actresses are going to impress me as much as Natalie Portman has here. A true tour de force.
Overall, Jackie is a quite brilliant picture that breaks from its biographical boundaries and becomes something much more than just an account of JFK’s death by his widow. Its examination of grief, both public and personal, shines a new light, although no doubt slightly poetically adjusted for cinematic purposes, on one of the most well known historical events in American history. It shifts the focus of those weeks in 1963 from the slumped body of the president to the crumbling mind of his wife, and through Natalie Portman I feel we have been gifted the definitive Jackie Kennedy in cinema. See it, see it right away.