Film Review: Jackie

by Keith Hill

Rated MA15+. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt. Directed by Pablo Larraín.

‘For one brief shining moment there was a Camelot.’

In a year that promises significant attention turned to the death of John F. Kennedy, with the release of all classified material relating to his assassination in October, Jackie turns the focus to his wife, as she reels from his death and seeks to cement his legacy.

The film revolves around Jackie’s famous interview at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port with Life journalist Theodore H. White (Crudup). The interview is famous for being the moment that Jackie created the Camelot myth – that the Kennedy presidency was America’s version of King Arthur’s legendary reign, with the Kennedys as America’s first royal family.  

The interview frames a mosaic of flashbacks to moments that defined the Kennedy presidency and the week following his assassination on 22 November 1963. The flashbacks often make uncomfortable viewing, as Jackie is shown holding her husband’s bloodied head while the motorcade speeds through the streets of Dallas and are contrasted with long, almost dream-like sequences of Jackie in extended solitude, but still elegantly dressed, in an empty White House, coming to terms with her uncertain new future.

Before she even has a chance to wash the blood from her face and that iconic pink dress, Jackie turns her thoughts to her husband’s legacy. While Robert Kennedy (Sarsgaard) rues the failure of the Kennedy administration to achieve anything substantial, Jackie sets out to curate an image of her husband that will ensure his presidency is not lost to the pages of history. Even as Jackie and Bobby ride in the back of the ambulance with Kennedy’s body she begins to quiz her aides about the spectacle of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, and sets out to choreograph a funeral procession that is worthy of an American president.

Even as she works to cement her husband’s place in the mind of the American people, Jackie wrestles with his place in her own life. The most honest moments come in her conversations with her Catholic priest (Hurt), as she excuses Jack’s notorious philandering with the thought that he was led astray by bad influences, and deals with her own desire for power in the way she and her husband crafted their public image. In these conversations, we see her create a fantasy in her own mind to parallel the one she is creating for the public.

Jackie is Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first English-language film. The director manages to avoid a sentimental portrayal of the Kennedy family, rather showing both Jackie’s raw grief and uncompromising determination. Portman is brilliant in the title role, portraying Jackie as she deals with her grief, questions her faith, and tries to secure her husband’s legacy. She inhabits her character, adopting Jackie’s breathy voice and affectations in a way that enhances, rather than distracts from her portrayal. Her performance is in no way the inferior of her Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan.

The film is stark in its portrayal of the difference between the private and public personas of those in power, and Jackie’s determination that her husband will be remembered as one of the great presidents of the United States.  

That desire to be known and recognised is one that inhabits each of us, and can be turned for good or for evil. The desire to make a name for themselves drove the sinful construction of the Tower of Babel, and fuels all kinds of sinful behaviours and compromises in us as we seek to be well thought of by others.

But that desire can only be truly met by the one who created us to be known by him. God stitched each one of us together in the womb, and planned every one of our steps. Nothing is hidden from him – even our deepest secrets and sins. Yet, if we come to him in faith, he loves and esteems us as his own children – not because we are worthy of it, but because that’s the kind of God he is.

The Verdict: Jackie’s arty style and intense look at the first lady in her raw grief and determination doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, but Portman’s performance is one of the best of her career. 4.5/5

Jackie is currently screening in Australia and the USA.

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