Jackie review – Natalie Portman intelligent and poised as JFK's widow

This meticulous account of the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination is powered by a supremely watchable performance that could well win an Oscar

Jackie is a movie varnished with good taste. It moves at an expertly controlled cortege tempo and is almost swooningly overwhelmed by its own historical importance. This is a portrait of Jackie Kennedy, well and conscientiously played by Natalie Portman; it imagines her stunned, stricken existence in the days between President Kennedy’s brutal assassination and his state funeral: a period that the film sets out to evoke almost moment by moment, with wordless lonely scenes in corridors, looming closeups on faces, amplified conspiratorial whispers, poignant memories of banal happier times. Mica Levi’s orchestral score, with a creamy dissonance of strings, does a lot of work in suggesting both elegiac sadness and post-traumatic stress disorder. The director is Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, with his first English-language film.

Jackie trailer: Natalie Portman stars in intimate portrait

This was a time in which Mrs Kennedy had to battle for her personal right to participate in the commemoration and the mourning, and felt crowded out by the self-important boys’ club made up of the Kennedy menfolk and Lyndon B Johnson’s incoming team. In particular, she resented the suggestion that she should not walk openly beside the coffin. There were security considerations – the unthinkable horror of a second assassination – but she resented being airbrushed out of history.

Natalie Portman’s performance is careful and intelligent, groomed and coiffed and vocalised: Jackie’s patrician graciousness co-existing with clenched anxiety and a sprinkling of entitlement and peppery hauteur. There is the occasional weird Monroe-type breathiness in the voice. Her scenes are always well managed, though each of them somehow looks custom built to be shown as an awards show clip.

Jackie in the bloodstained Chanel suit.
Jackie in the bloodstained Chanel suit. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox

But instead of simply showing us a shocked and vivid experience in the here and now, it is all presented as a flashback with a silly and strained framing device. Jackie is explaining everything after the event to a wry-looking interviewer, superciliously played by Billy Crudup: a little rumpled with tie not done up to the top – would any journalist have dared appear before the real Mrs Kennedy like that? She exchanges with him knowing and redundant print-the-legend dialogue about what he is and isn’t allowed to write. Together, they usher in a beautifully ambient but Rosebudless account of Jacqueline Kennedy.

Peter Sarsgaard plays the grim-faced Bobby Kennedy; Caspar Phillipson is JFK; Greta Gerwig has little to do as Jackie’s friend and confidante Nancy Tuckerman, who is shown supervising Jackie’s famous, heartbreakingly stilted and high-minded TV documentary tour around the White House in 1961, elaborately recreated in all its well-intentioned awkwardness. Max Casela plays the officious press aide Jack Valenti, later to become president of the Motion Picture Association of America and inventor of the rating system, and Aidan O’Hare has a tiny cameo as Kennedy adviser Kenny O’Donnell – 17 years ago played by Kevin Costner in the Cuban missile drama Thirteen Days. John Hurt plays an ageing priest, to whom Jackie (sort of) confesses her anxieties about her late husband’s fidelity.

Larraín candidly stages the big historical moments, such as the tense emergency swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson (played by John Carroll Lynch) on the plane. There is also the assassination itself, which is shown in a much more gruesomely explicit way than I expected, or than has ever, I think, been shown before. The movie certainly can’t be accused of prettifying events as far as this is concerned, although I am less sure about the scenes in which Mrs Kennedy is finally seen removing the legendary pink Chanel suit with its bloodstains, which she had defiantly insisted on keeping on. Again, there is something fetishistic about it.

It is well made, handsomely furnished, punctiliously designed and the use of Richard Burton’s sonorous tones on the Kennedys’ LP of the musical Camelot is a nice moment. But, like so many films based on real and well-known events, I feel Jackie gets a little bit of a free ride in simply fabricating the look of iconic images, moments and public figures. Undoubtedly, Larraín has done something more visually demanding than a regular biopic; there is no hamminess or straining for effect. But there is a kind of complacency in the film’s almost trance-like sense of how beautiful it is, and something almost glib in assuming its audience will be knowing yet deferential, like Crudup’s interviewer. Well, it is a supremely watchable impersonation from Natalie Portman, who might well pick up the Oscar for which the film is angling.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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