What would you assume if I told you Natalie Portman was starring in a biopic of Jackie Kennedy? ‘A period piece! Lavish costumes, elaborate sets! Portman looking poised and regal, with dignified tears tears falling when the Big Tragedy occurs! A stately, courtly Prestige Picture!’ Now what if I told you it was directed by Pablo Larrain? ‘Who?’
So you’d have the wrong idea about Jackie, but it’s understandable. We’re at the end of the year, when a lot of studios get Oscar-grabby, and dump their Theory of Everythings, their Imitation Games, their Philomenas. All uplifting stories you respect more than like, which serve as showcases for a central performance destined for a polite BAFTA nomination.
Jackie is a completely different beast with a completely different goal. For starters, the scope of the film is rigidly focussed—its 99 minute runtime contains no backstory, no scenes of little Jackie Onassis growing up, courted by JFK, assuming the position of First Lady. It is only about her thought processes after the assassination, the few days leading up to JFK’s funeral procession and burial.
If you read transcripts of Kennedy’s interviews during this period, like those in this book, you might think that she was a rambling scatterbrain, someone whose thoughts never connected or cohered to each other. A woman who, quite simply, couldn’t shut up in front of a reporter. However, once Natalie Portman grabs ahold of these words, they become revelatory. Portman looks poised and regal, and dignified tears fall at regular intervals, but there is so much more here.
For Portman plays Jackie as a woman whose life was solid; her identity and station were clear, until that crushing thunderclap in Texas. Once her husband dies, the sun around which her thoughts orbit vanishes, leaving them to clatter about her brain, untethered. Larrain mirrors this in a stunning sequence in which Jackie roams about her living quarters in the White House. She glides from room to room, unsure of where to be or what to do. She drinks champagne, tries on different dresses, halfheartedly places an LP on the phonograph… always moving, always restless. It’s mesmeric.
Only an actor of enormous screen presence and talent could make this fascinating. For Portman’s performance isn’t one of enormous range, but one of vast intelligence. She turns the lengthy, circuitous word strings screenwriter Noah Oppenheim provides into a concrete thought process, which is vastly more difficult than displaying a gamut of emotions. Or mimicking someone’s superficial physical attributes, for that matter. I can’t easily recall a film so cinematic that concerns itself so narrowly with a character just thinking.
And this is what makes Natalie Portman’s performance perhaps the best by a female actor in 2016 (and yes, I’ve seen Elle). She doesn’t just provide a window into Jackie’s deep inner turmoil and emotions, but also inside her brain. I cannot stress this enough: if watching a woman think for an hour and a half sounds exhaustingly dull to you, Larrain and Portman are here to show you how wrong you are.
It helps that Larrain takes a subtly expressionistic approach to his material, most notably with his claustrophobic sets. He shot a few choice exterior sequences in Washington, D.C., but most of the interiors on sets in Paris. Cloistered, suffocating; we never see the outside from the inside. Such beautifully composed prisons, looking quite like the products of a demented Wes Anderson, and as Jackie aimlessly ambles through them we feel the pressure intensely.
The film is not perfect. When Larrain loosens the pressure toward the end, he treats us to Malickian shots of Jackie with her children, running and playing in a Malickian landscape. 2016 already gave us a Malick and Portman collaboration, so another feels superfluous (and derivative). These diversions are mercifully short. As is the screen time for Greta Gerwig, who sticks out here like a sore thumb (when doesn’t she?).
Ultimately, Jackie is a spellbinding narrative and thematic arabesque. Imagine Russian Ark, but instead of showing the whole of Russian history, on display are few days in the life of a former First Lady. Portman’s wise, complex, profoundly layered performance is her best. Indeed, it is one of the best of the year. Jackie is a biopic for people who hate biopics.