FILM REVIEW: Jackie (2016)
I admire directors who take on biopics, and the actors tasked with portraying their subjects. It must be a challenge to tell a story which has already been thoroughly told, and to give a performance which is simultaneously accurate and compelling and respectful, all while attempting to justify the film’s mere existence by doing something different with the source material, making it original in some way.
Pablo Larrain manages to deliver all of the above with complete ease in Jackie, a film which artfully examines the grief-stricken moments in the life of the iconic First Lady following the assassination of her husband in November 1963.
Not usually a fan of biopics, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film and Natalie Portman’s central performance, of which I was initially dubious after seeing snippets in the film’s trailer. She sinks into the role seamlessly, and within minutes of the opening scene, I forgot that it was Portman I was watching. It is an extremely measured, precise performance, and Portman is wise to draw on the natural strength and perspicacity that makes her so unique as a person, and an actor, to portray Jackie’s force. There is vulnerability and uncertainty beneath her composure, though, present in every scene from the pre-assassination White House tour to the subsequent interview with a Life magazine journalist (Billy Crudup). We really get the sense that this woman was defined by her position as First Lady, and helped to define it, and the film is at is strongest when it is exploring this; as well as the ramifications of Jackie being abruptly stripped of her title. This questioning of identity is one of the movie’s main themes, and is symbolised in a sweet moment in which she gazes from a car to observe the offloading of multiple Jackie-esque mannequins from a truck, about to be positioned in a shop window for passers-by to scrutinize.
The film is as much about grief as it is about fame and the experience of dealing with a tragedy whilst the whole world is watching. Larrain’s camera probes into the performances of each actor by getting as close to their faces as possible, and the tight framing of each shot makes the film feel deeply personal, more than just a staging of historical events. The cinematography is crisp and richly coloured, lingering on the exquisite costuming and set design without letting either pull focus. The exteriors are beautifully shot, too, with Larrain skilfully utilizing weather conditions and natural lighting; a scene in which Jackie runs through rows of tombstones on a foggy day feels heavy with emotion, whilst the backdrop of pinks and oranges at sunset gives a conversation on a White House balcony a contemplative aspect.
The real star of this film, though, is the score, which adds so much to the experience of watching it by elevating every scene in which it features onto a higher plain. Mica Levi, who after her work on 2013’s Under the Skin is quickly establishing herself as one of the most provocative composers in cinema today, manages with her score to embody the sense of abrupt change that goes along with grief; everything turning sour in the space of one moment. It starts eerie and begins to lift as the film progresses, symphonically illustrating Jackie’s search for hope and meaning in a world that has taken so much away from her.