Natalie Portman cries and smokes her way through this strangely framed, unflattering and ultimately unfulfilling portrait of a woman trying to come to terms with the death of her husband in the most public of settings.
It’s been a week since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and his grieving widow, Jackie, has summoned journalist Theodore H. White to the family compound, seeking to put her own spin on her late husband’s presidency.
From this introduction we are taken, rather jarringly, back to that fateful afternoon in Dallas and the immediate aftermath, as Jackie washes her dead husband’s blood from her face, then watches on in her still-splattered clothes as Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as President on Air Force One.
The film continues to cut between the ‘present’ of Jackie talking to White, and the ‘past’ of her planning JFK’s funeral – until around halfway through, when a second framing device is introduced, Jackie talking to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt).
The idea is that Jackie is talking to White in an effort to preserve her husband’s legacy, while the discussions with McSorley are an attempt to maintain her own sanity, but the various timelines are distracting in what is supposed to be the story of a person’s grief, not an episode of Lost.
What’s more grating is the camera work. Apparently to make the film feel intensely personal, director Pablo Larraín absolutely rinses the extreme close-ups. Seriously, at least half the film is tight shots of Jackie’s face, or the back of her head – Portman must have suffered from claustrophobia by the time shooting was done.
Then there’s the proximity; Portman is right in everyone’s face. There’s lucky to be six inches between her and almost anyone else in a scene. Between the close-ups and the oh-my-god-are-these-two-about-to-kiss closeness, this is a film that would play out just fine on a TV from 1963.
Despite this, Jackie is extremely distant. Granted, she’s lost her husband and – particularly in the scenes depicting the minutes and hours after Kennedy’s gruesome murder – is in shock, but Noah Oppenheim’s script struggles to flow, with characters virtually trading non-sequiturs for large portions of the film.
What’s more, Jackie is not a likeable lead. While she’s in the most sympathetic of positions, having lived through a harrowing, life-changing event, she seeks sympathy for all the wrong things (“I didn’t want to be famous, I just married a Kennedy”) to come across as rude and dismissive. Of course this is softened a little by Billy Crudup’s White, who is smug and beyond insensitive to a woman you need to remember saw her husband’s brains blown out barely seven days earlier.
Regrdless, Portman is receiving plenty of Oscar buzz, having already been nominated for a Golden Globe. And it was exactly the kind of performance that the Academy lap up – a biopic, plenty of tears, in immaculate costumes and sets, and an attempt by the actress to recreate the subject’s way of speaking.
I say attempt, because Portman’s speech strikes the wrong chord. Producer Darren Aronofsky reportedly said getting Jackie’s vocals right was “the key to the rest of the film”, yet for some reason neither Peter Sarsgaard or Caspar Phillipson, playing Bobby and John Kennedy respectively, really bother to speak in the famous Kennedy drawl. As a result, Portman’s breathey speech, with that vague rhotacism, is just off-putting.
Ultimately this may be a film I’m being overly harsh on – it’s tough to be impartial after six weeks of rave reviews from the States. But it was such a slow burn that the pay-off, while genuinely breath-taking, just wasn’t enough to salvage it.
Two and a half stars.