Jackie (2017) (Review)

Natalie Portman's star turn in Jackie, the true life story of Jaqueline Kennedy and the impact and aftermath of her husbands assassination in 1963, today scored her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress which positions her as one of the categories' front-runners. The biopic drama, directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenheim, arrives against an equally fraught political backdrop, suitable for the turbulent times that any major political turn can ensure. How does Jackie stand up during this very busy award season, and is it worth your attention?

Set during her role as First Lady of the United States in the White House and the day of and those following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. It offers a glimpse into the lives of those left behind on the fateful day in 1963 and the impact it had on a more personal level, through the eyes of Jackie Kennedy and those around her.

As you have heard, and/or expected, Natalie Portman is sensational as Jackie Kennedy, nailing the former First Lady's mannerism, characteristics and accent to the point where you have to double-take as to whether some moments are archive footage of the real Jackie or filmed as part of Portman's performance. It's commanding, seamless and engaging at all times, translating into a moving and often harrowing performance that demonstrates the struggles of being both a mother, wife and figure of inspiration to many; essentially, she plays a lady who has, for a good part of her life, put on a performance, meaning this gives Portman an opportunity to showcase a more personal side to Jackie, including her relationships with a variety of people, be that her family, friends or government officials. It's carefully crafted and finely tuned with a strong possibility that this will go down as one of her career-defining performances, Oscar trophy or not. Surrounding supporting players, despite being incomparable to the name-above-the-title, help round the picture off with solid performances that support the emotional journey the film takes us on; Greta Gerwig is an terrific choice as Nancy Tuckerman, Social Secretary and friend to Jackie, as if Peter Sarsgaard's Robert Kennedy, including one pivotal scene in which he mediates on whether JFK's legacy will simply be that of an assassin's bullet. It's powerful that this spark of rage is really rather true, making it a rather devastating retrospective.

Jackie, by design, operates through a fragmented narrative structure that reflects the fractured thoughts and memories of its titular figure during her time of turmoil, brought together more by its haunting score from Mica Levi than its narrative cohesion and flow. Levi crafts an undeniably effective soundtrack, more than earning its Best Original Score nomination, with atmospheric material that excellently conveys the unsettled situation, perfectly digging under your skin and ensuring it stays with you not only throughout the film but for a good while after you've left the cinema. Matching the beauty of the score is cinematographer Stephane Fontaine that truly captures the era with stunning saturation and lens flares that transport you right into Jackie's world, as if you are intruding on her grief. The whole thing looks absolutely splendid, thanks to a production team that has paid great interest in historical accuracies, including the hair, make-up and costume departments, as well as the glorious, regal sets. All of this is wonderfully helmed by director Pablo Larrain who unites the prestigious picture with some magnificent camera work, including the funeral procession and march which plays with angles excellently, as if to demonstrate both Jackie's strength (through the low angles) and vulnerability (through the high angles), wavering as she makes the heartbreaking journey to bury her husband's body. Larrain also manages to craft an intense, almost forensic viewing experience; we feel as if we are intruding on the first families' grief, with lingering shots that place a sense of discomfort with the audience, who shouldn't be seeing such a public figure in such a personal, raw and grief-stricken light.

Emotional intensity is heightened and heightened during the film's third and final act, which deftly recreates the momentous seconds in the motorcade with such precision, beauty and brutality, containing one heart-wrenching aerial shot of Jackie holding her husband's head and brains in her lap as they rush to the hospital. We know the gunshot is coming - it's set in stone - but it still manages to create such an emotional punch and rush that you feel on edge during the whole recreation; but otherwise, the film lacks a sense of urgency, almost wading along and drenched in a stillness most of the time that becomes incredibly frustrating. It should feel continually unsteady but instead there exists a relative calmness that ponders around far too long. And while we are certainly transported into Jackie's world that feels deeply rich and textured on the surface, it does not feel as lived-in as we want it to. While it's a blessing that this film confidently puts Jackie as the indisputable focus, it's also a curse in that we want to feel connected to Jackie and John's relationship to understand what she has lost, rather than being told through very brief flashback and moments that don't equate to much. It's disheartening that the film cannot quite muster up a fully fleshed-out history for the pair and although we know of it through history, it could do with being shown on screen to give the film extra emotional weight. I wanted to be moved to tears but it didn't always get me there.

Funereal and deeply affecting, Jackie is a visually delightful and thematically sharp film that puts an astonishing performance from Natalie Portman at the centre. Smart structural decisions underpinned by a phenomenal score make for a captivating yet uncomfortable watch, with its musings on grief and loss on both a wide and very personal scale very effective. We are transported into a stunning world that, while not as developed as we want it to be, which in turn leads to a few issues in intensity and emotional connection,  manages to craft an absorbing take on a beloved figure that feels multi-layered and completely enthralling.


Summary: Jackie's strength lies in the details of a terrific production team, wonderful direction and cinematography and an exquisite central performance from Natalie Portman, which portrays the themes of grief and loss on an intimate scale incredibly effectively.

Highlight: The recreation of the assassination scene in so, so powerful and leaves a lasting image.