Pablo Larraín makes his English language debut with the Darren Aronofsky produced Jackie which, although more conventional, is no more a biopic than his Cannes triumph Neruda. In a career best role, Natalie Portman plays the role of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, a woman who went from being a fashion clotheshorse to a national figure of tragedy on that fateful day in Dealey Plaza. Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay confines the action to the days surrounding that personal and national trauma and the focus strengthens.
Larraín returns repeatedly to the events of Dallas and the horrific car ride she took, while trying to hold the brains of her husband inside his ruined skull. These moments are waves of memory that crash against Jackie. In the ebbs, she must contend with the arrangements for the funeral and the not always sympathetic attentions of the Kennedy family, led by a wrathful and grieving Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), who sees in his brother’s death also the end of his own political ambitions. The hastily sworn in Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife Ladybird (Beth Grant) wait impatiently in the wings, the removal men presumably on speed dial. Jackie is torn between giving her husband a sendoff worthy of his legacy and wanting to dig a hole and lie down in it. She confesses her suicidal thoughts to her priest (John Hurt adopting a gentle Irish brogue), compounding her husband’s death with the death of her two children. “Was God in the bullet?” she asks. “Of course,” he tells her, a softly spoken hard man of God.
Larraín is as good at navigating the treacherous waters of internal White House politics as he is capturing the moments of intense, if numbed, private suffering, as when Jackie must tell her children that their daddy has gone. He is ably aided by Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography, which manages to get up close to Jackie while at the same time maintaining a sense of the environment in which she moved, from the familiarity of the White House to the foggy lakeside where she confesses. One gripe is Mica Levi’s score, which sometimes overwhelms when the emotions on the screen are already sufficient. Avoiding hagiography, Portman reveals Jackie to be more than the victim of a violent twist of fate. There is emotion here, but also restraint. Often the emotion is shocked numbness.
Jackie can be vain and, at times, petty. “I don’t have anything. I don’t even have a house to live in,” she laments sitting on the porch of a fabulous country mansion. When the scribe points out the house, she demurs, “It’s a cold house.” She is revealed to be a political player herself, who is instrumental in constructing the myth of Camelot – songs from the Lerner and Loewe musical are used twice to great effect. Both Jackie and Neruda are variations on the theme of how famous individuals have to invent themselves, if they are not to be trapped by the definitions of others.