PLOT: In the days following her husband's assassination, Jackie Kennedy barely has time to mourn before she has to reckon with the political ramifications of his death and the reality of her shattered new life.
REVIEW: Grief is a thing anyone can understand, or at least relate to, which makes JACKIE something of an experience that should prove universal. Director Pablo Larrain's complex drama looks at Jackie Kennedy's somber, stunned days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it provides intimate insight into how the complicated nature of grief turns even the most put-together of us into unsure, frightened, tortured people. What is crucial to the film's success, however, is Natalie Portman's superb, heartbreaking performance as a woman who, at least in public, personified class and grace, but was just as human as any one of us..
Everyone knows who John and Jackie Kennedy were, and that's crucial to Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim's format, which almost exclusively depicts Jackie as a woman in turmoil. Only a handful of scenes give us a look at her luxurious life before JFK's death - watching a concert within the confines of the White House, a guided tour with a TV crew as she explains the changes she's making (and not making) to the house. Because we know what happened to the Kennedys, Larrain can restrict his focus to the myriad tribulations that bombarded Jackie in the days following the murder. Most of us have had to plan a funeral, but how many had to before the eyes (and judgment) of the world? In addition to wondering just how "big" JFK's funeral should be, dealing with John's frazzled brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), unpleasant incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), her unsuspecting children, and her own fraught state of mind are the things Jackie has to contend with, which JACKIE shows us in disconcerting pieces.
Two constants in Larrain's story are Jackie's interview with a Life magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) and a solemn meeting with a priest (John Hurt) who offers the usual platitudes about God that are less than reassuring to a woman seeking answers in the face of dismay. The interview, done a week after the murder of her husband, is where we see Jackie regain some of her balance, making sure the writer knows she plans on signing off on the piece and keeping him off-guard while still struggling to recount the freshly miserable moments of her life. (The scenes with the priest are a little more standard; we feel like we've seen these conversations play out before.)
The film effectively weaves a tapestry of uncertainty for us as we watch Jackie navigate these rough roads, though we're never unsure about where we are in the story. Mica Levi's dreamlike score helps evoke the aura of a bad dream, the way we feel when our minds are clouded with anguish. This feeling of foreboding is often hammered home during the scenes with Bobby Kennedy, who of course would come to be killed himself only five years later. Sarsgaard's haunted embodiment of Kennedy lends these sequences an extra layer of sadness, although his exchanges with both Jackie and Lyndon Johnson often crackle with uptight energy. Sarsgaard is quite good in the role, equally bitter and forlorn, while also thankfully never overdoing Bobby's famous accent.
While Larrain and Oppenheim deserve plenty of credit for their unusually structured narrative, Portman's performance still turns out the be the whole story. Nailing Jackie's memorable voice pattern, not to mention her considerable poise, Portman is Jackie from the very first time we see her. The scenes where she has to stand idly by and watch as her legacy is slowly stripped away from her - as when she had to witness Johnson's swearing in mere hours after Kennedy's death - are harrowing and nothing short of convincing. It's these quiet moments where Portman truly shines, although images of her hysterical, with her husband's blood still on her face, are similarly powerful. JACKIE is quite a novel picture, but it is Portman who ensures that it leaves a serious mark.
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