A Second Look at ‘Jackie’

 Natalie-Portman-in-Jackie

David Prendeville takes another look at Pablo Larrain’s Jackie.

An examination of Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film begins with a journalist (Crudup) coming to the White House to interview Jackie. She discusses how the events unfolded, though she is quite clear that there are some things she says and does which she will allow to be published and some things she won’t. We then flash back and forward between days before the assassination, the assassination itself and Jackie’s subsequent strength, and to certain extent, performance in the face of the ensuing turmoil.

Jackie is a hard film to fault but also one that rarely sets the pulses racing. It is fairly intelligent and subtle in its dealing with a monumental historical event and as a character study. It also exhibits some wisdom in its examination of grief. It’s beautifully shot by Stephane Fontaine and brilliantly edited by Sebastian Sepulveda, with Larrain continuing his experimentation of blurring historical footage with the action of the drama in the same vein as his 2012 Pinochet drama No. The score by Mika Levi (Under the Skin) is discordant and unsettling. It adds an interesting obtrusive element to the proceedings, though it feels somewhat under-used.

The acting is uniformly impressive and subtle. Portman gives a quietly powerful performance. It occasionally feels like the sort of worthy impersonation of a historical figure that garners awards but for the most part Portman eschews these pitfalls. Like most things in the film she retains an admirable, if somewhat mundane, restraint.  There is solid supporting work from Peter Sarsgaard (as Bobby Kennedy), John Hurt and Crudup. Greta Gerwig lends her considerable charisma to the role of Nancy Tuckerman, one of Jackie’s most trusted advisors, though it feels somewhat wasteful to give an actor of her calibre such little screen time.

The film is somewhat unconventional for a Hollywood biopic but Larrain’s questioning of the veracity of imagery seems undercooked and one-note. The idea that Jackie must put on a performance for the good of her country is simple and mused upon to an extent beyond its depth or profundity as an idea. Formally also, the blurring of real footage with the artificial retelling, though impressively done, seems meagre in its scope. Jackie’s existential wrestling with mortality in the immediate aftermath is somewhat more interesting. She confides her fears with a priest (Hurt) and he offers no easy answers but speaks honestly about what it is that motivates people to live and carry on in the midst of unspeakable pain, anguish and fear. There’s a bluntness and honesty to these scenes.

There are moments where Larrain pushes things into close to uncomfortable territory. Watching Jackie undress from her bloodied clothes after the shooting feels like an intrusion of sorts. He also recreates the shooting itself and the shot to John F. Kennedy’s skull in one extremely explicit close-up. However, for the most part, Larrain seems to be on better behaviour then the quasi-provocateur of films such as The Club and Tony Manero. The whole endeavour, while admirable to a certain degree, also feels somewhat sedated.

This is a tasteful, accomplished piece of filmmaking but one that lacks the inspiration and danger of this director’s best work.

 

Jackie is currently in cinemas

 

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Review: Jackie

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

DIR: Pablo Larraín • WRI: Noah Oppenheim • PRO: Darren Aronofsky, Martine Cassinelli, Pascal Caucheteux, Scott Franklin • DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • COS: Madeline Fontain • DES: Jean Rabasse, Helena Gebarowicz • ED: Sebastián Sepúlveda • MUS: Mica Levi • CAST: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, Max Cassella

 

How do you breathe new life into the Kennedy legend? The images of the events surrounding JFK’s presidency and assassination have been rehashed so many times, it’s nearly impossible to present anything new about the man. Jackie opts for something different, therefore: an arresting portrait of JFK’s widow.

The most recent fictionalized version of the Kennedys was a well-made, decently-acted, but sudsy TV melodrama starring Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Bouvier. No disrespect to Holmes, who did an admirable job, or indeed to any of the other actresses down through the years who’ve essayed Jackie O, but Natalie Portman has set the bar way, way high in her portrayal in Jackie.

Set in the few days following the assassination, with flashbacks to Dallas and to scenes of happiness in the White House (including a famous TV tour of the place that helped cement Jackie’s image as First Lady of Style), the unconventional biopic’s structure presents a selection of takes on Jackie Kennedy: a grieving widow on the edge of a nervous breakdown; a resourceful wife; a canny manipulator of the media; an image-conscious superficial, silly, spoiled brat; a woman angry and resentful at God for taking her husband and two of her children, and an inveterate chain smoker who wouldn’t be out of place in Mad Men.

Through it all Portman mesmerises, capturing the peculiar vocal mannerisms and patrician authority of Jackie O, but also her vulnerability, will, and finally, determination. Even in moments when the script calls for her to go big, Portman holds a little back, aware, perhaps, that she’s playing an icon, and keen to make an unrelatable celebrity an identifiable human character.

She’s in almost every scene in the film, usually in close-up. This is a very invasive film, both visually and aurally – cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine isn’t a fan of the long shot, and the score is mixed too high, threatening to overwhelm some scenes (remarkably for a film with such melodramatic potential, it still feels very real – harrowing, but real: I thought that after so many JFK movies I’d seen every possible iteration of the man’s brains being blown out – it turns out I hadn’t). It was only when the end-titles appeared and I saw that Darren Aronofsky is one of the producers that it made sense. Jackie does feel, at times, like a companion piece to Black Swan, in that it matches its protagonist’s sense of growing hysteria with a suitable visual and editing style.

I said the film was an unconventional biopic. It is, I guess, but in many ways it adheres to the traditions of the genre. There is a framing device, which is an interview that Jackie conducts with a journalist (Billy Crudup), and which allows the audience a bit of insight into the personal life of one of the world’s most famous people. The interview is then ruthlessly edited by Jackie herself, eager as she is in the days following her husband’s murder to preserve the image that the Kennedy administration worked so hard to maintain (the interview is based on a real interview which she gave and which created the Camelot myth of the Kennedy years).

Apart from Portman, the rest of the cast does admirably well in playing famous and not-so-famous people. If the film is trying to make the point that no celebrity is ever the way you expect, then it deserves points for casting Peter Sarsgaard: he doesn’t look or sound anything like Bobby Kennedy, and the film is murky on his intentions, implying, if only briefly, that he may have harboured a thing for his sister-in-law. The always-reliable John Carroll Lynch is a stubborn Lyndon Johnson. Greta Gerwig plays a close confidant and continues to show why she is one of the best screen actresses of her generation. John Hurt, looking frail and sporting a not-too bad Oirish brogue, is the family priest (his one scene is a triumph).

Directed by Pablo Larraín and scripted by Noah Oppenheim, the film only has a few missteps, the principal one being that we get to see JFK alive and well and dancing with his wife. For a movie about the power of myth-making, it would be better that his character was left only alive in our imaginations. But no matter: this is Portman’s film through and through: she gives one of her best performances (better even than her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan). For one brief shining moment there was a Camelot, and for a hundred intense amazing minutes there is Natalie Portman in Jackie.

Niall McArdle

99 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Jackie is released 20th January 2017

Jackie – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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