The impressionistic biopic is perhaps one of the most underrated variants on the form: by relying on feelings rather than fact or narrative, they skip the much of the pressure of having to form a cohesive portrait of their subjects. So it is with Jackie, a capsule of the week in Jackie Kennedy’s life immediately following the death of John F. Kennedy. Jackie is a curious and frustrating film, but in many of the right ways, and it is hard not to feel something after seeing it.
Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, Jane Got a Gun) is visited by journalist (Billy Crudup, Spotlight) after the assassination of JFK to get her “definitive” interview on the subject. Jackie flits between the contemporary Jackie’s pointed attempts to control her own image, and flashes of happier times, the trip through Dallas itself, and the bureaucratic and emotional aftermath of the president’s death.
Jackie‘s first stumbling block is its star power, as always occurs whenever a somewhat iconic actress takes on a definitively iconic political figure. When a role is a performer’s own creation, they can disappear into it; as a real person, they become an amalgam of themselves and the part they’ve taken. If you compound this with Kennedy’s distinctive mid-Atlantic accent, it’s a stumbling block, but Portman eventually overcomes it. There’s a distinct period of acclimatisation that comes with it, and it coincides with the film’s tone being at its most aggressive. The camera loves Portman, but through her character she gives the impression that she both needs and hates it. This is a film that is ultimately about craft, of both itself and its subject, and far less a story being told than something being constructed before our eyes. To that end, Portman and director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) work together in symphony, a rare case of synergy that only occurs at very high levels of cinema.
Jackie was conceived as an HBO miniseries, and so Noah Oppenheim’s (The Divergent Series: Allegiant Part 1) script was possibly more conventional at some point during production. Larraín has a strong sense of form and aesthetic, to the point that he has made entire films physically painful to watch in his quest for verisimilitude. Jackie is a film composed of colour and texture. From the vibrancy of Jackie’s couture and furniture — fundamental to her understanding of life and history, a genuine and appreciable character note — to the incessant pounding of Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) score, there is always something palpable on screen.
Jackie never comes close to being a teaching aid. What Larraín instead has to offer is an impressionistic piece, confident in the fact that it is, above all else, a movie. More mood piece than standard narrative, more character sketch than study, Jackie is a fascinating film that rewards as it confounds.
Jackie opened in Australian cinemas on January 12, 2017.
Directed by: Pablo Larrain.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.