“A First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It’s inevitable.” So remarks the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in response to a reporter (Billy Crudup) asking her about the difficulty of moving out of the White House earlier than she would have expected to need to. There’s a fragile dignity to her speech, wounded but still defiant as she stares directly into camera, her gaze never wavering. Sometimes the best way to understand a tragedy is to view it from the perspective of those it affected the most but lived to endure it. Such is the conceit of Jackie, Pablo Larrain’s biopic (of a sort) following the First Lady through the hazy days following her husband’s (Casper Phillipson, so JFK-like that it sidles up to the uncanny valley) assassination, culminating in his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. The interview, held at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port after the funeral, acts as a framing device, giving cues to the flashbacks that serve as the meat of the film. In grand narrative fashion, Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim push back to happier times, beginning with a recreation of a recorded tour of the White House shortly after the Kennedies arrived. But even then she seemed ill at ease, constantly pushed to remember to smile by her confidant and assistant Nancy (Greta Gerwig). It’s fun and candid and charming, reminding us of what she is at her highest before delving into her at her lowest.
She flits through the moments that we’ve come to know, dazed in her blood stained pink dress, observing the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) at her side. She waffles back and forth over whether to have a full funeral processional, the Secret Service and Robert trying to convince her that the security risk is too great. But the film also stops to look at the moments that don’t make the history books, whether it’s an anguished meeting with a priest (John Hurt) before the funeral or dealing with the process of packing her belongings to move out of the White House while the wounds of her loss are still fresh. The camera, under control of cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Captain Fantastic, Elle) often chooses unlikely shots and angles, tracking her movements from behind before cutting to extreme close-ups. His study of Portman’s face is often uncompromising, allowing for extensive study of her expression, the slightest eyebrow adjustment or lip quiver speaking volumes that dialogue never could.
Portman clearly did her homework studying Jackie’s accent, aping her distinct Hamptons twang with perhaps a little Joan Rivers thrown in to taste. It’s a pretty extreme dialect, and takes some getting used to as it is such a radically different voice than Portman’s normal style of speaking, but she doesn’t waver and everything settles in without acting as a distraction. Hers is the most complete performance, the rest of the cast mostly existing on the fringes for a scene here or there. Sarsgaard continues to plumb the depths of interpretive Massachusetts accents following Black Mass; he and Crudup likely have the most screen time of the support, but Jackie isn’t all that concerned with fleshing them out. This is a one character show. Still, a few additional actors manage to make an impression, namely Greta Gerwig and the venerated John Hurt, both taking the responsibility to leave the politics at the door and talk to her as a person, not as a former First Lady or a grieving widow. She remarks “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy,” and that sentiment rings true throughout Jackie. She didn’t ask for her life, and that doesn’t make living through it any easier.
Portman’s performance, the script structure and the direction all serve to reinforce Jackie Kennedy’s fractured psyche, but there is another piece that completes the puzzle in the form of Mica Levy’s score. The English composer made waves in the industry with her harrowing and unconventional score for 2014’s alien horror film Under the Skin. And Levi’s music marks the beginning of Jackie, with a cascading descending string passage against a black screen foments the profound sense of unease set to define the film’s tone. It’s a bold opening statement, a bit of minor key discord that feels inherently wrong, like something is broken. Levi is in no way a classical composer, and like with Under the Skin, she avoids traditional melody in favor of tones and sound effects that can sometimes make it unclear where the sound design ends and the score begins. Silence is a prevailing motif in Jackie, so much of its run time eschews the soundtrack entirely, but the pieces she provides are as memorable as they are unnatural. Levi has only produced two major scores in her career, and already she has cemented herself as one of film’s most innovative and exciting composers.
Jackie deftly dodges the standard biopic tropes in its portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, shaping her life as a reflection of her trauma at her lowest point. The excellent work from Natalie Portman, compelling scripting and cinematography and powerfully unsettling music paints a striking picture of the First Lady. As the priest tells her, “the darkness never goes away, but it won’t always be as heavy.” Jackie perseveres not just as a portrait of this woman’s specific grief, but as a universal treatise on grief that we all try to avoid but will inevitably have to confront at some point in our lives. The film so perfectly portrays the shock and the stillness of it all, the loneliness even among the well wishers and the equally aggrieved, that sense that you can’t rediscover who you are no matter how you try. Pablo Larrain has put together something special here.