Natalie Portman is remarkable in a thrillingly unconventional biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy from Pablo Larraín
As soon as the first stills emerged of Natalie Portman styled as the poised, mysterious, iconic Jacqueline Kennedy it seemed certain she had another Oscar nomination in the bag. And her agonising, in-depth performance is remarkable in this hypnotic drama charting Jackie's anguish and resolve in the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination. But it isn't simply the Portman show. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's English-language debut, with a script by Noah Oppenheim, is no conventional biopic or Kennedy bio-soap. It is an impressionistic, non-linear, richly-layered and sophisticated exploration of faith, loss, fame and the deliberate shaping of a mythology.
The structure hinges on two conversations to which we return throughout the film. Jackie's meeting with a political journalist at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts a week after the assassination sees the unnamed reporter (played by Billy Crudup and based on Theodore H White of LIFE magazine) gingerly tackling an exclusive with the world's most famous widow. He discovers she is not just the stylish and elegant consort or the intensely private enigma, but a shrewd PR genius, and he succumbs to Jackie's idea of enshrining Kennedy's administration as the modern-day Camelot, creating a magical legacy for JFK. Walks and talks with a Catholic priest (John Hurt) probe the questions of life, death, belief, betrayal and coping with the unbearable.
Also woven in, as a touchstone to Jackie's persona and personality, are recreations (blended with actual archive footage) of Jackie's televised tour of the White House, in which the nervous First Lady shyly but expertly articulated her ambitious historical restoration project. There are, of course, flashbacks to famous scenes (the swearing-in of Lyndon B Johnson aboard Air Force One with Jackie in her blood-spattered pink Chanel suit), imagined private incidents, and tastefully deployed fragments of the fatal motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963 which eventually climax in a devastating full account of the assassination from her perspective. Portman is exquisite even as she goes to pieces in a bathroom or swigs vodka, her raw emotion and the ghastly necessity of multitasking (simultaneously comforting her children, packing up her home and fiercely stage managing every detail of the funeral spectacle) heartrending and awesome to behold.
Larraín has orchestrated everything with an international array of talent and with technical virtuosity, from his casting (Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie's private secretary / confidante Nancy Tuckerman, Richard E Grant as painter / Kennedy intimate William Walton) to Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography and Mica Levi's strikingly spare, dissonant score. The result is a mesmerising reflection on celebrity, memory and the determined individual crafting history.
General release from Fri 20 Jan.