Jackie review – a symphony of grief at the White House

Natalie Portman is extraordinary as JFK’s widow, but the real star of Pablo Larraín’s kaleidoscopic film is Mica Levi’s score

In its 6 December 1963 issue, Life magazine published “An Epilogue” for John F Kennedy which enshrined an idea that would come to define his legacy. Citing the Lerner and Loewe musical beloved by her husband, Jackie Kennedy told reporter Theodore H White: “There’ll be great presidents again… but there’ll never be another Camelot.” It was an idea that stuck, effectively immortalising JFK’s all-too-brief tenure in the White House as a lost golden age. “Don’t let it be forgot,” Jackie kept repeating, “that there once was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

A fictionalised version of this encounter provides the framework for the Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a dizzying kaleidoscope of reconstruction, reportage and reinvention that mirrors its heroine’s fragmented state of mind in the days surrounding JFK’s death. At its heart is an extraordinary performance by Natalie Portman as the icon caught in the eye of a violent storm of grief, politics and media management. With her husband’s blood hardly dry on her clothes (scenes of Jackie removing grotesquely stained hosiery have a horrible intimacy), the former first lady must pack her bags, comfort her children and stage-manage a funeral to rival that of Abraham Lincoln.

“This will be your version of what happened,” clarifies Billy Crudup’s unnamed journalist when Portman’s Jackie reminds him that she will be “editing this conversation”. Yet as we slip back and forth in time, from the awful events in Dallas to the aftermath in the White House and the arcane pageantry of JFK’s funeral, Jackie vacillates between candour and control (“Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that”), while Larraín gradually reveals the woman behind the mask.

Having brilliantly melded new and archival footage in the political drama No, and played with resonant biographical fact and fiction in his forthcoming Neruda, Larraín seems perfectly placed to direct Noah Oppenheim’s script, which was variously courted by Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky (the latter now produces). Restaging and interweaving scenes from the 1962 TV documentary A Tour of the White House With Mrs John F Kennedy, Larraín presents Jackie as the first lady of the televisual age, someone who understood the moving image as well as the printed word and became master of both.

In stark contrast to familiar, long-lens news footage, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, whose credits include A Prophet and Rust and Bone, keeps his 16mm cameras painfully close to Portman throughout. From the matching vanity mirror shots of Jackie before and after the assassination, to the tight-focus, handheld views of her dazed face as she stares into an uncertain future, she dominates the 1.66:1 frame, isolated even in company.

Jackie trailer: Natalie Portman stars in intimate portrait

With her breathy vowels and strangely stagey expressions, I confess that Portman’s mannered performance seemed at first too arch to be engaging. Only on second viewing did I realise that her Jackie was not alienating but alienated. Scenes of her wandering the cavernous rooms and corridors of the White House (brilliantly recreated by production designer Jean Rabasse) reminded me of the Overlook hotel from The Shining. Whatever else it may be, this is a ghost story; no wonder John Hurt’s world-weary priest becomes the one person to whom Jackie can express her deepest fears. There’s a creepy connection, too, with Larraín’s bitingly sardonic The Club, as the whispering voices with which Jackie contends in Washington seem to echo the cloistered sins of Chile’s Catholic church.

Pulling all these disparate elements together is Under the Skin composer Mica Levi’s magnificent score. From the saddening glissando strings of the opening theme, with its falling invocations of death and discord, Levi provides the unifying emotional glue for Larraín’s deliberately shattered film. There’s a touch of Jonny Greenwood’s deeply unsettling music for There Will Be Blood about the recurrent swooning motif that Levi deploys (not to mention a funereal hint of Handel), while eerie silences echoing between strong but fragile chords poignantly recall Jackie’s isolation. Elsewhere, the drums of war scratch at the edges of plaintive piano pieces, while jazzier sounds evoke the sunny 60s optimism that was shattered in the wake of the Dealey Plaza shooting.

Solid supporting turns from the likes of Peter Sarsgaard and Richard E Grant add background colour, while Greta Gerwig’s social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman, lends a much-needed touch of warmth as Arthurian optimism is ominously boxed away to make room for a more abrasive incoming administration. As for Portman, she has earned deserved plaudits and nominations for her title role in a movie that rests heavily upon her shoulders. Yet for me, it is Mica Levi who unites the film’s shattered pieces, becoming the real heroine of this story.


Mark Kermode Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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