A biopic like Jackie comes around very rarely – an intimate, honest and sometimes brutal exploration of a much-loved public figure does not get more brilliant than this, and helmed by the wickedly talented Pablo Larraín, Jackie is one of the year’s most incredible films, and it proves to be a great addition to the canon of innovative and extraordinarily well-made political biopics, and serves as a fantastic film in its own right.
Jackie is very inventive in its form – it is structured as a conversational Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is having with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), a journalist sent to interview the former first lady about the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy a week before. The events of the previous week takes the form of flashbacks, as we see Kennedy interacting with various other individuals as she comes to term with the fact that the assassination was a significant piece of news, but more than anything, it was a loss of a son, father, brother and husband, and the death of John F. Kennedy may have sent shock-waves throughout the world, but it almost destroyed an entire family. Added to this, the film also puts another layer atop this, showing a recreation of Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House a year before, showing her in her glamour as First Lady, but also displaying her impeccable class and incredible intelligence. The use of these different layers proves that Jackie is far from a typical political biopic and is far deeper in many ways.
A film like Jackie lives and dies with its core performance – and Natalie Portman takes the daunting task of playing the titular central character, through which all the events of this film are told. This isn’t a biopic of Jackie Kennedy in the traditional sense (it isn’t the “cradle-to-grave” type of biopic, where we see Jackie Kennedy at various stages of her life) – the focus on only a week in her life is not highly original, but in the way it was constructed, it is wildly inventive and far more engrossing than a standard biopic would be. Portman is incredible in the lead role – she quite possibly gives her career-best performance here as the titular figure – and she does extraordinary things with a performance that could have been very tricky to get perfect. Not only does she nail the voice and look of Kennedy, she manages to display her as far more than the fashion icon and public figure that she was portrayed in and how history has shown her.
Through Portman’s performance, we see a complex, strong-willed woman who wasn’t always very likable, but had fierce intelligence and a dedication to herself and her family. There are moments when Portman is completely unlikable (particularly in her interactions with the journalist), but this isn’t a criticism, but rather one of the film’s glowing strengths – it doesn’t portray Jackie Kennedy as a likable, friendly woman and celebrity – it shows her as a human being with real emotions and genuine convictions – she acts exactly who anyone would given the circumstances. Portman is so incredible in this film, and her performance is utterly devastating. Portman gives a beautiful, complicated and layered performance that puts her among the most brilliant biopic performances. I wouldn’t be surprised if Portman is best remembered for her performance in Jackie, because it is truly extraordinary.
Jackie holds absolutely nothing back – and it is one of the most brutal and honest biographic films I have ever seen. It would’ve been so easy to convey this film as a glossy, fancy political biopic filled with glamour and high society antics. However, it does something very important – it crafts a realist portrayal of the week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and does so through the most visceral and heartbreaking means necessary. To give a slight spoiler (but can you really have a spoiler for a real-life story, especially one of the most famous incidents in American history?), we see the immediate events of the assassination towards the end of the film – and rather than simply being a case of showing Kennedy being shot and then rushed to hospital, Larraín makes a bold choice to show the dying Kennedy being held by his wife, whose face is a horrifyingly heartbreaking mixture of her husband’s blood and brain residue, and her own devastating tears as she feels the life drain out of the man she loved. This image will forever remain in my mind as one of the most shocking moments in cinema – I hardly ever look away from a film, but this moment just made me recede in horror – not because it was bad, but because it was so powerful and poignant, and so utterly heartbreaking. There are several instances of these small but utterly memorable moments throughout the film, and Larraín manages to create a film far more powerful than one would expect.
It is very easy to just see Jackie as being Portman, but there are other very memorable and equally wonderful performances. Peter Sarsgaard shines as Robert Kennedy, who both comforts and angers his sister-in-law as a response to his own grief. Sarsgaard portrays Bobby Kennedy as a conflicted, dedicated man who doesn’t understand society or life in general, and while he may not reach the heights Portman does, he is still incredible. John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant are wonderful in their smaller roles as President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, who are thrown into the dilemma of becoming the First Family with very little preparation or warning.
Richard E. Grant is great as William Walton, if not slightly under-presented in this film. Greta Gerwig steps out from the mumblecore indie bubble she built her career in and gives a pretty impressive performance as Nancy, an assistant and friend of Jackie Kennedy. It made me quite sad to see John Hurt in what would become one of his last performances, and he proves to be somewhat of the heart and soul of this film – his performance as a priest who is both wise and naive is masterful, and his meditations on life and death are so poignant and add so much meaning to the film. The cast as a whole is very strong, and even the most brief performances are still memorable.
Jackie is incredible. Portman is otherworldly in this film, and the cast is wonderful. As a whole, it is a shocking and very heartbreaking film that conjures up far more tears than a biopic should. The score is incredible (composed by the endlessly talented Mica Levi) and the cinematography is extraordinary. Jackie serves as both one of the best biopics ever made, but also as an utterly beautiful film, both in story and execution. I can’t begin to explain how incredible this film is, and I hope other historical figures are given such treatment when it comes to telling their stories – respectful, innovative and unforgettable.