It is not everyday you watch a female-centric biopic which does not reduce its protagonist to a mere appendix of the man her fame is indissolubly bound with. Jackie, Chilean Pablo Larraín’s latest work, is one of such rare cases. It is a superb character study which does not just show Jacqueline Kennedy as John Fitzgerald’s wife, but a strong-willed woman who both loved her husband and struggled to come to terms with the pressures that being a Kennedy entailed. A beautifully written and directed tale that Natalie Portman’s superb performance as the late first lady turns into an outstanding piece of work – amongst the very best of those presented at Venice’s 2016 Film Festival.
Larraín employs several different narrative devices to reveal Jackie’s persona. We first meet Jackie shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death. She is furious at the way the press is handling the story and invites a journalist to her house to give her version of the facts. The interview is the first entry into Jackie’s world, and also a great vantage point to understand the conflict between her tormented private life and public figure. The journalist recalls an old White House TV tour Jackie starred in, and Larraín intelligently juxtaposes the smiley debutant-esque TV version of Jackie with the bitter one she shows to the journalist. But the interview must eventually be published, and Jackie can only reveal a small fraction of the traumas she has suffered. She does so with a priest, whose exchanges with the first lady are among the film’s most touching moments.
Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is a true gem. The film seamlessly shifts from Jackie’s heart-breaking memories to Bob Kennedy’s frustration with the way the Johnson administration will sideline the Kennedys, while the different entry points into Jackie’s life (the interview, the old TV show and the chats with the priest) help building a multifaceted and magnetic character.
Larraín staggers Jackie with old-looking footage that reconstructs the White House tour she gave as well as some original material from the early 1960s, mimicking a strategy he had already successfully adopted with his best foreign feature Oscar-nominee No (2012).
Yet Jackie is also a testament of Natalie Portman’s talent. Watching the real footage of the White House Tour the first lady gave in 1962, one realises how spot-on Portman’s accent, facial expressions and gestures are. Her moving performance adds strength and credibility to the drama, and the way she becomes Jackie leaves one speechless.
Jackie is not a hagiography of the woman who survived John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. It is much more than that. It is the vivid and poignant story of a lady whose entry into one of the world’s most powerful families was both a blessing and a curse. It is a tale so exquisitely written and directed that it will move many to tears. It is, above all, a memorable film.