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Film review: Jackie is a triumph

Film & TV

Jackie, the new film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is many things, but the one thing it most definitely is not is a conventional biopic.

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Do not go to the cinema expecting a traditional approach to an already well-covered period in US political history. Instead, be prepared to be immersed in the Dallas shooting and the funeral of JFK from the perspective of First Lady, Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy.

In an interview in 2016, director Larraín (who also directed Post Mortem, Tony Manero and No) explained his motivation: “We all know the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But what happens if we focus only on Jackie? What was it like during those next three days, drowning in grief, her and her children’s lives changed forever with the eyes of the entire world upon her? Jackie was a queen without a crown, who lost both her throne and her husband…”

In realising his vision, Larraín has created an exploration of myth, history, vulnerability and legacy – a gripping study of strength in the face of extreme circumstances.

Natalie Portman, in the title role, is mesmerising. She’s in almost every scene, her face exposed in a multitude of close-ups and beautifully framed shots that capture a luminous and compelling portrayal.

Portman perfectly expresses the first lady’s style and elegance, helped by immaculately rendered period details in décor and clothing, plus the clever splicing of historical footage with current and re-created scenes of key moments in the narrative.

There are equally engaging performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and Greta Garwig as Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s social secretary.

Mica Levi’s unsettling score sustains a sense of unease throughout, and makes a major contribution to the emotional heart of the film.

Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman as Bobby and Jackie Kennedy.

Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman as Bobby and Jackie Kennedy.

Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim emphasises Jackie’s ability to manipulate image and steer public perception in her preferred direction.

Jaqcueline Kennedy had some experience with the power of the press through her involvement in the making of a television documentary. Following criticism for spending too much on renovations, she agreed to take part in the 1962 broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. As she did her best to convey her aims of bringing to the fore the history of the house and its previous occupants, she explained that she wanted everything in the house to be the best, to properly convey its importance to the nation.

She put her image-making skills to use again, immediately following her husband’s death, when she arranged a single interview with Theodore H. White (played in the film by Billy Crudup as “the journalist”) for Life magazine. It was during this meeting that the Camelot comparison first originated. Jackie proposed that White write of JFK’s obsession with the popular musical, in particular the closing words “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

She may have been grieving, but she was also media-savvy and in complete control of the story.

Many moments shock. As Jackie shares her recollections with the journalist, we revisit the events in graphic and sometimes painful intensity. In a brutally swift replacement of the slain president, Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in on the flight back from Dallas, the same flight carrying JFK’s body and his shattered, blood-spattered wife.

With barely a pause, the new widow must move out of her home while at the same time organising the funeral and dealing with her overwhelming emotions. She does this with poise and single-mindedness, choosing the route for the cortege and the cemetery plot with the best aspect, often defying the wishes of the incoming president’s staff and the expectations of her own family.

Whether or not you see the film with much prior knowledge of John F Kennedy’s assassination, you’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the woman who made sure the tragic death of her husband will never be forgotten.

Jackie, arresting from start to finish, is a triumph.

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