Jackie Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Rated R. Opening December 21 at select theaters.
In the hands of a different director, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay for Jackie could have turned into an unremarkable biopic about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, but Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, in his English-language debut, takes the sometimes bland writing and infuses it with a haunting melancholy befitting the story of the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Rather than depicting Jackie’s entire life, the movie focuses on the immediate aftermath of her greatest trauma, when her husband was cut down by an assassin in 1963. As played by Natalie Portman with a striking (but accurate) patrician accent, Jackie is brittle but determined, taking the small realm of her power as the wife of the late leader of the free world and wielding it to honor his legacy and cement her own.
The movie’s framing device finds Jackie speaking to an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup) at her Massachusetts home, and while she’s distraught and facing an uncertain future, she’s also in full command of her public persona, dictating the terms of her own magazine profile. As the movie flashes back to the days following JFK’s death, Jackie emerges as a perpetually underestimated figure, whose focus on glamour and high culture (illustrated in re-enactments of her renowned CBS TV special A Tour of the White House) allows the self-serious men around her to dismiss her intelligence and importance.
Although some of the dialogue spells those themes out a little too bluntly, Larrain illustrates them beautifully with the movie’s visuals, including stunning period production design and costumes and a series of loving, illuminating close-ups on Portman. The arch style (including Portman’s deliberately mannered performance and Mica Levi’s enveloping and sometimes jarring score) might put off viewers looking for a conventional tribute, but Larrain offers something more meaningful and lasting, an impressionistic portrait that says more in images than in words.