Jackie movie review: Natalie Portman's acting saves a film obsessed with Mrs Kennedy's image

Anshu Lal

Feb 25, 2017 11:19:16 IST


After the assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, his wife Jacqueline did a lot of things (like using the Camelot myth) to make sure JFK's name, image and legacy were not lost.

Well, image is also the name of the game in Jackie, a movie which portrays the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination from the eyes of JFK's wife. The movie, starring Natalie Portman and directed by Pablo Larrain, shows how the then First Lady dealt with the huge responsibilities thrust on her with presence of mind and dignity, despite all the pain and tragedy in her life.

But the most crucial aspect about the biographical film is that it portrays the respected image of Jacqueline Kennedy more than the actual person herself.

Natalie Portman in and as Jackie

Natalie Portman in and as Jackie

The film is loosely based on an interview Mrs Kennedy gave to Life magazine, as it begins with an unnamed journalist — played by Billy Crudup — arriving at the Kennedy mansion in Hyannis to interview Mrs Kennedy. Throughout the interview, the film goes into flashback several times to depict the events which took place right after Kennedy's assassination and a few events before the assassination.

Natalie Portman has carried the movie on her shoulders as the focus never shifts from her character. Portman's body language, mannerisms, and most importantly, rich expressions convey the utter confusion and frustration of a woman who has to deal with politics, media, and an entire country, despite being completely shocked and shattered after the murder of her husband.

Mrs Kennedy in Jackie has to deal with her own staff, her children, the new President and his staff, planning a state funeral, moving out of the White House, and most importantly, improving her husband's public image, all at the same time. Portman's acting of a tortured yet resilient woman struggling to protect her husband's legacy in a man's world perfectly describes the public image of a dignified First Lady who never reveals her true pain in front of anyone.

Portman's character is naive enough to ask what an autopsy is but also firm and manipulative enough to tell journalists what to publish and what to delete.

But the biggest drawback which Jackie faces is that despite Portman's powerful acting, there is something fundamentally wrong with her role itself. The filmmakers have mostly presented the public image of Mrs Kennedy, or rather depicted what she was like in front of other people. The true grieving face of Mrs Kennedy almost never comes out, perhaps out of the reverence for the image of Mrs Kennedy or ignorance of her intimate personal life or both.

We always see Portman's character struggling with pain or concealing it to get the job done. But we rarely see her true shattered self, a moment in which all the pretensions and necessary obligations of the First Lady fall apart to reveal a woman who is absolutely devastated.

We only see the controlled pain of a First Lady rather than the unbearable misery of a woman who has lost her husband.

This is problematic because without a general idea of the complete extent of the pain the protagonist is going through, the audience will not be able to comprehensively appreciate or empathise with the massive effort taken by her to conceal that huge pain.

The biggest evidence of this flaw is that Portman's character's expressions in most scenes when she is alone are almost exactly the same as the ones in which she is with people. There are, of course, scenes in which she is crying uncontrollably as she is wiping blood off her face or washing dried blood off her hair in the shower. But those scenes depict more of the immediate shock the character faced or the horror of violence than grief arising out of helplessly missing someone.

Even the scenes in which Mrs Kennedy is talking about her grief with a priest, played by the late John Hurt, just seem to involve her talking about her grief rather than expressing it. Even with the priest, one can sense that Mrs Kennedy is still talking partially as the First Lady. The movie is so focused on showing how the then First Lady dealt with her duties that it rarely shows her letting her guard completely down.

Another drawback is that the other characters get sidelined or ignored because of all the focus on Portman's character. We never get to see the defining traits of most of the other characters because they exist in the movie only to attend to Mrs Kennedy or to add to the story revolving around her.

Robert F Kennedy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, only talks about Jackie or what she must or must not do and almost never says anything about himself. The only character with considerable depth is Crudup's. The tension between the journalist and Mrs Kennedy during the interview comes out partly because of the journalist's desire to get intimate details from her without offending her or saying something insensitive.

The costume design in the movie is thoughtful, considering the fact that Mrs Kennedy was a style icon during her days in the White House. The film is also visually spectacular, with parts showing Portman's character taking a TV channel around the White House in black and white to give a vintage effect.

In a nutshell, though, Jackie is mostly about the respectful image of poise and resilience which Americans have of Mrs Kennedy rather than the woman herself. And because the role of the First Lady has expanded to much more in recent times (as shown by Michelle Obama) than just one of supporting the President and protecting his image, some people may find it hard to connect with the movie.

Portman's engaging performance of the First Lady during one of the most difficult times for the people of the US, though, still makes this biographical drama a good movie.

Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 14:00:43 IST