Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, “Jackie”, is probably one of the most recognizable global icons. She presented herself to the world first as the perfect renaissance woman (she was an accomplished equestrienne, an avid reader, and excelled at several foreign languages), then the perfect wife, mother, and the perfect First Lady (she still remains among the all-time American favourite residents of the White House, which she painstakingly refurbished during her stay), and then as a survivor and a mourning widow who embodied the loss many felt when her husband, John F. Kennedy, finished his life prematurely during the infamous Dallas assassination – not to mention the editorial work and all of her cultural contributions in the years that followed.
Given the interesting political life that Jackie had led, along with her interesting persona, it comes as no surprise that she became the next subject of Pablo Larraín, Chilean filmmaker, who seems to have found his niche in making heavily character-oriented and character-personal films with major historical events unfolding in the backdrop; this was already the case with three of his previous films – Post Mortem (2010), No (2012) and Neruda (2016). Indeed, he couldn’t have picked a more grateful – or richer – subject for his English-language debut feature. It’s been well over 50 years since that fateful November, but the American royals – the Kennedys – still garner attention and inspire creation. Add Natalie Portman with her amazing acting chops to this splendid source material and you’ve got yourself three Academy Award nominations (not to mention a long list of other accolades).
Given the fact that the actual Jackie was famously a very private person, Noah Oppenheim, who penned the script for Jackie, gave himself a fair amount of artistic freedom. He introduces us to a number of Jackie facets that could – or perhaps even did – exist, giving the power of narrative straight in to the hands of the lead character who herself acknowledges the blurred lines between “(…) what is real, and what is the performance.”
There is the woman who firmly states that she does not smoke as she lights her cigarette – as much as she firmly dictates who is Jackie that the world sees. There is the woman who just brutally lost her husband and her position in the world and is now struggling to arrange a proper send-off – as much for herself and for her kids as for her deceased husband and his legacy. There is Jackie who seems to be fragile as glass, but who (also by filling that glass with alcohol and pills) holds it together like she’s made of steel when her tough gets going. There is Jackie who knew of her husband’s infidelity, but who still held on, with all accompanying sadness and disappointment, to the man that was probably her true love. There is Jackie who likes pretty and elegant things, and who threw the most glamorous parties that were attended by global crème de la crème – Jackie, who is inebriatedly dancing on her own to a Broadway musical song (the original cast recording of ‘Camelot’ adds levels of metaphorical meaning to every scene it accompanies; including it was a brilliant decision) that her husband loved as she says goodbye to the House and the life she got attached to, even though she knew better.
There is the genuine Jackie, the public Jackie, the ambitious Jackie, the feminine Jackie, the ultimate fighter Jackie; the history-weaver Jackie. And Natalie Portman, who conveys all of these emotions, all of that persona, those famous manners of expression and speech to the last dialectal dot, with incredibly masterful acting strokes, even if there are moments when they seem slightly too calculated and deliberately delivered.
Even though a lion share of the film leans heavily on all angles and building blocks of Jackie, Larraín decidedly puts the whole palette of emotional complexity into context by making short jumps outside Jackie’s own narrative – into the shocked world of public, full of grief and political ambition, where the vacant presidential seat has promptly been filled and Mrs. Johnson has only scarce restraint when it comes to ushering her way into the soon-vacant White House. The story jumps to and fro, until it squarely lands on the tragic event itself, where we are shown a short but a powerful scene of the Kennedys in the presidential limousine, driving at high speed on Dallas roads, with Jackie past herself as she holds her husband, his head in her lap with all the skull-scattered pieces, futilely trying to put them back together while talking to him through tears – a scene that puts the previously shown scenes with Jackie already mid-aftermath into a firm context, and makes the audience wonder how she even managed to keep that admirable amount of sanity. The later scene with the funeral is in actuality longer, but holds much less impact.
There are a few side characters that offer great performances in their own right – first being the reporter who interviews Jackie in the week following JFK’s assassination – great performance by Billy Crudup – and the second being the now late John Hurt in one of his final roles, whose portrayal of the priest that Jackie confides was splendidly subdued – his character’s gently direct, honest treatment of the widow plays out perfectly, and there is a genuine believability to be found in this segment of the film. The main supporting role of the film, Peter Saarsgard as Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, serves its purpose of him being the one male the lead female can lean onto in times of crisis; or perhaps we can see them just as two members of the same family who understand and support each other during a mutual loss. Saarsgard delivered the role of mourning brother and supporting brother-in-law perfectly. Perhaps the most heart-warming (though not as present) support comes from her aide (and her friend) Nancy Tuckerman – the role of whom is portrayed with the highest possible subtlety by the excellent Greta Gerwig.
Given that this is a period film, it simply must be mentioned that costume design of Jackie is deservedly collecting awards, besides staying faithful to the style and the original outfits of the fashion icon that was Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, Madeline Fontaine opted to stay true to the era instead of overdoing it, which played a major part in the believable recreation of that time, the production set team (headed by Jean Rabasse) – basically, the entire art direction of this film was excellent and deserves every award or nomination it receives. Same goes for the great music score by Mica Levi; she managed to strike the perfect balance between the grandiose and the subdued, bringing out that extra heart-wrenching note to some of the already very emotional scenes.
With Jackie, Larraín entered the largest of film markets, and as far as English debut films of foreign directors go, Jackie is perhaps among the most ambitious; selecting someone so historically visible as the film’s focus, then twisting an intellectually comprehensive web around it to make it both believable and at the same time, to make the audience question the validity of historic facts and biographies (though Larraín and Oppenhaim are hardly the first to go there), adding to that a renowned cast and a very talented team … Given the scope and the ambition of the project, it seems that Jackie made slightly less waves than expected, but that does not make it any less enjoyable – both for generations that still live to remember and reminisce, and to satisfy the vague curiosities of the younger generations who only know the great Jackie as their textbook material.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Fox Searchlight Pictures