Portman Shines in an Unconventional Biopic
The biopic has been done an umpteen number of times in film, with most following a very similar formula. Life of a famous person is traced since childhood, with defining early moments, heartbreaking tragedies, the creation of defining works, and the rise and fall of various romances all plotted along the way. Throw in some montages and maybe some nifty closing text that wraps up the story, and you’ve basically got every good and bad biographical film.
Director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie most certainly eschews the formula, with the Natalie Portman-starring vehicle tracing a few short weeks in the life of Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Told in a labyrinthine manner and focused on permeating the psyche of its lead character instead of tracing her life’s major events, Jackie most certainly cannot be called a typical biopic. That distinction makes the film unique in the sea of biographical films, but it also frustrates as often as it illuminates.
Above all, Jackie is an acting showcase for Portman, whose portrayal of the world famous First Lady is quite literally at the center of the film. No, seriously, the vast majority of the shots in Jackie situate Portman at the center of the frame and having the film pivot on her as she makes her way through the aftermath of tragedy. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s camerawork is almost claustrophobic, with countless shots pressing into Portman’s visage or gracefully following her closely through the halls of The White House or her estate as she attempts to process the trauma she has just endured. It’s a bold choice and one that often dismisses the events happening around Jackie in favor of dissecting her behaviors, choices, and struggles.
That means that the film rises and falls on Portman’s acting decisions in every moment. But Portman most certainly makes the most of the opportunity and hinges her performance on several bold choices, not the least of which being emulating the idiosyncratic voice of Jackie Kennedy. Full of the flair that comes with the Kennedys’ signature transatlantic accent, Portman’s affectation never breaks. It may take a minute to get used to, but her vocal pattern sounds genuine and eventually feels like second nature within the context of the character.
Playing a First Lady who was known for her inner strength and confidence, Portman’s Jackie is a woman of calculated expressions and few moments of weakness. In both her personal and public lives, Portman’s Jackie rarely lets her stoic mask fall, with Larrain’s film giving us infrequent yet crucial glimpses into the pain and doubts experienced in Jackie’s most private moments. In what could have been a loud, brash, and even manic performance, Portman instead chooses to project strength and grace, even when those attributes lead to isolation or terrible self-doubts. It’s up to Larrain’s cinematic choice to press in close to Portman’s face again and again in order to uncover the meaning and truth behind an often minimally expressive face. If Portman’s performance had been big and brash, it most likely would have clashed hard with the countless massive close-ups found here. Her choices here make this not only a strong performance, but one that wisely coincides with the filmmaking choices on display.
Is it Oscar-bait material? Most likely. But it’s still a damn good performance.
The rest of Larrain’s film is filled with bold, if not also the best, choices that constantly push Jackie into unconventional territory. First and foremost being the decision to not only plant the film in a very specific timeframe, but to chop it up between several time periods, which the film frequently hops between. There’s the week following JFK’s assassination leading up to the President’s public funeral spearheaded by Jackie. Then there’s Jackie’s first televised appearance, where she hosted a tour of The White House. There’s also Jackie’s interview with journalist Theodore White (played by Billy Crudup) months after the funeral, which frames the film and gives context to the public’s opinion on her. And finally, another segment focuses on Jackie’s conversation with a priest played by John Hurt, in the lead up to a funeral.
While the many actors who surround Portman at these various moments, including Peter Sarsgaard as an embattled Robert Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s pillar of strength Nancy Tuckerman, Social Secretary for The White House, they are largely used to contrast against Jackie at these various moments in time.
Larrain’s film is constantly jumping between time periods, strategically using them to reveal and highlight various aspects of The First Lady at specific moments in order to hopefully illuminate more of the staunch and strong Jackie. What’s surprising is that a film as chopped up and mixed together as much as Jackie works so well in its narrative cohesion. It’s obvious that the interplay between these various periods in time is not the result of chaotic editing, but very precise scripting by Noah Oppenheim.
It’s also boldly scored by Mica Levi, who chooses to frequently use unsettling and off-putting musical choices that fill the air with tension and unease. Not since Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood has there been a film score for a period piece that has so deliberately clashed and upended what could have been classical filmmaking sensibilities. It also sometimes feels like Levi is trying especially hard to be unconventional to the point of distraction. But it definitely leaves a mark on both film and viewer.
Jackie isn’t meant to illustrate an entire life, but to drill down into the sorrow and uncertainty felt by a woman at once known around the world yet also terribly alone. It’s all there in Portman’s inescapably restrained, powerful performance, even when Larrain’s film remains a one-of-a-kind yet frequently frustrating oddity.