Crafting a Legacy: A 'Jackie' Film Review
by Will Lindus
There’s a certain stigma attached to biopics, especially those released during the time of year when prestige films angle for precious award nominations. These films often follow the same stale formula, tracking a notable historical figure from ‘womb to tomb’ as larger-than-life monologues are delivered against sweeping, if a tad boring, musical scores. It is perhaps because of this stigma, or rather in spite of it, that Jackie emerges as one of the most unpredictable, focused, and unsettling pictures of the year.
With public figures like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, most people know enough about them to contextualize their importance in history. Director Pablo Larraín and writer Noah Oppenheim have crafted a story with Jackie that becomes hyper-focused on the events immediately following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. We see surprisingly little of their life together prior to the assassination, which allows the film to feel fresh and unrestrained by an obligation to clog its runtime with every detail of Jackie’s life. Instead, Jackie becomes a story about grief, and how in striving to protect her husband’s legacy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ensured her own.
Natalie Portman dons the role of Jackie with a skillful prowess that is likely to earn her several accolades, and each of these would be deserved; Portman disappears into the role of Jackie, transforming into something almost unrecognizable despite her status as one of the most notable actresses in Hollywood. It isn’t just her vocal affectation that signifies her transformation, though this accent is extraordinarily realized. From her demeanor to her posture, everything about Portman’s performance speaks volumes about the incredible amount of research she put into capturing the essence of Jackie. It is a larger-than-life performance that feels equally grandiose in scale yet comfortable during quiet moments.
While Portman steals the show, the rest of the cast provides a firm foundation that is perfectly in-synch with the gravity of the story. Greta Gerwig is, perhaps, one of the most underrated talents in Hollywood, and her presence as Nancy (Jackie’s close friend and confident) showcases her ability to deliver the goods in more than just the smaller indie films for which she is known. Peter Sarsgaard (whose name I have to look up every time for fear of including too many a’s) is cast as Bobby Kennedy, and his reactions to conversations and events within the film are strikingly balanced with Natalie Portman’s. For me, though, the strongest supporting performance is one with less fanfare; Billy Crudup plays the role of a journalist for LIFE magazine who interviews Jackie about her husband’s death a mere two weeks afterward. There is a give and take between Portman and Crudup, as each character tries to assess the other, as the journalist seeks the essence of the story while Jackie seeks to protect the image of her husband.
We also need to talk about the score composed by Mica Levi. In 2013, Levi produced the most unsettling and disturbing score of the year for the film Under the Skin, and somehow, she matched that same discordant energy with Jackie. In most biopics, this score wouldn’t work; at times, it feels like it would fit more appropriately in a horror film. As the themes of grief and uncertainty become more transparent, however, this theme adds an increasing amount of texture to Jackie’s struggle.
Bottom Line: Jackie feels like a film that is confident both in what it wants to do and what it aims to avoid. By focusing on a short window into the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the film is able to tell us more about her strength and her conviction than any sweeping biopic might ever hope to accomplish. Larraín’s unconventional storytelling style, Levi’s dark score, and Natalie Portman's tenacious performance create an odd duck of a film that is as haunting and as lingering as the legacy she was so desperate to protect.
Jackie expands its theatrical run on 12/21/2016.
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