Another biopic about a glamorous, internationally famous woman, unhappy despite being surrounded by all the luxury money can buy? As one who dutifully sat through the truly awful Diana (2013) and the equally spirit-sapping Grace of Monaco (2014), it’s fair to say I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of watching Jackie, an account of Jacqueline Kennedy’s days shortly before and after the assassination of the husband President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
But what a surprise – this is a terrific piece of film-making, uneasily compelling from start to finish and crowned by a superb performance by Natalie Portman in the title role.
I should have known, of course. Jackie is directed by the Chilean Pablo Larraín, one of the world’s finest film-makers and currently in top form. (His film The Club, released here last year, is equally compelling, though in very different ways.)
Larraín’s approach to Jackie was clearly to tear up the biopic rule book, and create a psychological drama about a dazzlingly attractive society woman of surprising complexity – one who is assailed by contradictory, sometimes startling doubts in the wake of her husband’s sudden death.
And then there is Portman, who appears in almost every scene, often in close-up; it’s almost as if Larraín’s cameras are stalking her. Every tic on Portman’s face is made to register and is thus given meaning. It’s an extraordinary responsibility to hand to an actor, but she succeeds in her task triumphantly.
What becomes apparent as the film progresses is that Jackie, though grief-stricken, knows she needs to affirm her husband’s place in history – and to save herself from being dismissed as some air-brained trophy wife. She senses she has her own personal legacy, and even in the dark days of mourning she needs to grasp it, and to shape her own story.
What she has to say about herself and JFK comes directly from an interview she grants to a journalist (an excellent Billy Crudup) a few days after the assassination. This interview is riveting; Portman accurately captures the breathy upbeat cadences of Jackie’s voice, which make her sound somewhat innocent, but it masks the calculation with which she stakes a claim to her future.
It’s Portman’s film all the way, though it must be said her work is buttressed by some brilliant supporting performances beside Crudup’s; John Hurt is mesmerising as her blunt, outspoken priest; Peter Sarsgaard makes an excellent Bobby Kennedy, clearly shrewder and brighter than his handsome late brother.
It’s made clear that though one president has been cruelly mown down, the show, as it were, must go on. Jackie watches in mute horror, signalled by minute flinches, as Lyndon Johnson assumes the presidency almost while JFK’s body is still warm. There’s a relentless logic to the process, and Jackie’s fear of being sidelined justifiably increases.
By definition, this is uneasy subject matter, yet it’s compulsively watchable. It’s a daring take on Jacqueline Kennedy’s role in those awful, momentous few days, and it’s a subversive approach to a familiar story: I seriously doubt if an American director would have had the nerve to tackle this subject in such a head-on manner. I’m glad Larraín did; his Jackie is a remarkable work, with a feverish fascination that makes it hard to forget.