Portman dives deep into character study in ‘Jackie’

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in 'Jackie'

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in ‘Jackie’

It has been said that it is impossible to judge history unless you’re truly there. This is a point-of-view which appears to be coming out of the Pablo Larrain film Jackie. The movie provides an extremely layered look at a largely unexplored perspective of one of the most analyzed events in US history, the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Jackie follows the life of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days immediately following her husband’s death. The events are cleverly told through two events, the First Lady’s landmark televised tour of the White House in 1961 and an interview given to a journalist (Billy Crudup) in the weeks following the assassination.

Caspar Phillipson as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in 'Jackie'. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Caspar Phillipson as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in ‘Jackie’. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The tone of Jackie is not only interesting but incredibly unique for a film of this subject matter. Viewers can sense Jackie’s isolation in the narrative. The image of these events in history has been depicted so glossily over time. However, this film looks at the specter of Jacqueline Kennedy through another lens. She’s a young mother and widow, struggling to handle not only her own feelings but those of her children as well, under the watchful eyes of a distraught nation. She’s a woman caught in the center of the spectacle that was Camelot, and the narrative makes it clear how utterly alone she is. Often, the film shoots in tight close-ups, allowing viewers intimate knowledge of the actor and their feelings, but very little else. Portman’s Jackie wanders around in a daze, and no one seems to quite know the right thing to say to her. The only person she seems to connect with is Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), her husband’s brother, and the Attorney General. As such, Bobby is one of the few people who can understand everything Jackie is going through.

Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE. Photo by Bruno Calvo. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE. Photo by Bruno Calvo. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Interestingly, the film also deliberately shies away from emotionality, which could be very easy to lean on with this subject matter. The absence of a musical score during key moments is a deafening choice. Instead of swelling music, the action is weighed down in cold silence. During scenes with heavy emotional weight, the audio track is removed completely. Viewers watch as a terrified and panicked Jackie tries to hold her dying husband’s head shut, a clear sense of emotion on her face. However, the other factors which would allow the moment to hit hard: screams, screeching tires and chaos are all absent. This is a deliberate creative choice. Larrain is making a point. We can never truly understand history.

The film is filled with well-crafted performances, most notably the always amazing Sarsgaard. He gives a subtle performance as JFK’s ultimately doomed little brother Bobby. This is another underlying tragedy in the narrative as viewers watch the young Attorney General step-up, lead his family and ultimately serve as Jackie’s only confidant. However, as history would show, Bobby’s fate would closely follow his older brother’s.

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in 'Jackie'. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in ‘Jackie’. Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Portman gives a well-studied portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy. The actress has thought through the role carefully and has spent a tremendous amount of time developing the First Lady’s distinctive speaking voice. This is a role which will definitely garner Oscar nomination talk. In the performance, Portman makes some interesting choices. Jackie Kennedy is a woman who has been held up for her poise, polish, and dignity for the last fifty years. However, in watching Portman on-screen, she doesn’t seem like the elegant and refined woman viewers have seen in history books. Rather, she comes off like a scared girl, at times only playing the role expected of her because she’s a Kennedy. It’s difficult to hold this as a flaw in the performance, because it could just as easily be interpreted as a deliberate choice for the filmmaker, presenting this image of Jackie Kennedy when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Jackie is a film which defies expectations. The biggest detractor comes in the tone, which is complex, to say the least. The film is cold. It’s a study in isolation, coming at a time which the history books have always held up for its unity. This could detract some viewers. However, as the film sinks in, it is a fascinating character study of a woman who had her every move studied for years.

 

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Kimberly Pierce

A film nerd from my earliest years watching Abbott and Costello, that eventually translated to a Master’s Degree in Film History. I spend my time working on my fiction projects in all their forms, as well as covering film and television. You can view my work at Geek Girl Authority and view my books at Smashwords.

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