I mean…it seems like they designed this film in a lab somewhere for me to love it, genetically engineered to hit me on every level that I love. This is a Pablo Lorraine-directed, Mica Levi-scored, Natalie Portman vehicle and it succeeds on so many levels. Jackie has had a lot of buzz for a long time now. I’ve been dying to see it and while I’ve been patient I had gotten twitchy waiting. No more though, I finally got there and was it worth it? Yup, for the most part.
The film centers on Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s death and her attempts to hold a kingdom together as the world swells around her, threatening to catch her in the undertow. From gunshots to press interviews, the film is quiet but gripping in many places. Children panicking, Jackie bullying a reporter, family drama, all of it is portrayed with a quiet tension that underscores the plot. For the most part it works but there minor pacing issues that bog the film down. Portman, however, elevates every moment of the film.
And let’s talk about Natalie Portman’s performance. I didn’t live through the Kennedy years (shocker, I know) so my knowledge of the former first lady as a public persona was sketchy at best but when I heard this was coming I scrambled to find something to give me some context for what I was going to see. After viewing a lot of video I can say that Portman gives a phenomenal performance and carries the film. All of it is striking, and it isn’t just the odd accent that lends credence to this. From her physical movements to her rotation between vicious queen or poised wife of the president, she gets it all down.
There is a really amazing moment in the film that shows all of this. As she sits, chain smoking cigarettes, the reporter comments on it and then realizes he will not be allowed to print this before calmly informing him that she doesn’t smoke. While my theatre cracked up at this it really gave her a moment to show how predatory the performance could be, the look in her eyes dangerous. Jackie was a defender of a legacy, and the film’s plot leaned heavily on this as it focused attention on her restoration of the White House to more of a lived-in museum piece than just a home, a legacy in brick and mortar that housed American royalty and served as a display to the people. She considered herself part of that display, and Portman deftly portrays her attempts to preserve that vision, the dream of the kingdom of Camelot on US soil.
Everyone is on display, the full might of a devastated woman in power brought into the light. John Hurt appears as Father Richard McSorley, a priest with which the titular character converses throughout segments of the film. She touches on what drove her to bring such bombastic qualities to JFK’s funeral, her desire to bury him with the dignity of a king but also to march through the streets of Washington D.C. and even beyond. The Kennedy family is spoken of, and even acknowledged as, royalty. Spoiled but broken, they all struggle with public appearance and safety amongst themselves and Natalie Portman walks among these people, forcing her wishes for the funeral with an aggressive demeanor and changing her mind to suit her angry, grieving spirit.
Peter Sarsgaard co-stars as Robert Kennedy, a sort of foil and support for Jackie. His own grief, the anger and pain he feels, cannot help from bubbling out of him even as he tries to stabilize his sister-in-law. In fact we get more from this performance than any of the rest of the supporting cast and it is a somber contrast to the quietly vibrant Portman.
Originally Darren Aronofsky was supposed to direct this but had to drop out. Normally this would be downright devastating, but after viewing Pablo Lorraine’s El Club I started to get a little excited at the new director’s announcement, hand-picked by Aronofsky himself. I was not disappointed, the mixture of grained film and old
press footage really helps lend the film a seamless flow, almost stream-of-consciousness. There is a dreamlike quality to the whole thing, the entire film feeling like a trauma session. Lorraine has gone out of his way to really make something special here.
The film isn’t without flaws, though.There is a lot of talk about vanity in this film. Jackie’s, the Kennedy’s, the American people’s. The script is plodding and vain itself, allowing for slow places and daring anyone to speak against them. The pacing did not bother me too much but I know it has received some flack. This is a slow-burn film and one should know that going in. Lorraine keeps the viewer interested but I will admit that even I grew listless in a couple of scenes. Long shots of people walking through the white house, aggressive costuming, even the recreation of the funeral being as wide as it can be is a display from director Lorraine that indicates a self-satisfaction but that might just be the point of it all; the obsession with display and legacy being a powerful theme in the film ekes out of the script, but not always in the best or most efficient ways.
Mica Levi scored this film. This is only the second film she has been a part of and I was not sure if her particular talents would match but after listening to the score for Under the Skin on and off for a couple of years I was very interested. Haunting strings and slides are sparsely used to great effect, the haunted White House softly horrific as the ghostly presence of Jackie Kennedy pops pills and drinks, floating around the bones of her former kingdom. It meshes excellently.
I waited a long time for this and I was not disappointed. Portman is up for an Oscar for Best Actress because of this and it is well deserved. I cannot wait to see where she, Lorraine, and Levi go next after this.
For those interested in comparing Portman’s performance to the actual footage of Jackie Kennedy, there’s a link below to the full tour of the White House she led in 1962. It gave me a deep appreciation not only for this performance but for the woman herself, who is trying to give people access to government on such a personal level for the first time. Flawed, interesting, and awkward, the brief documentary is well worth the time it takes to watch it.