By Claudia Mulholland
Jackie is a film about legacy. Marking a paradigm shift in biographic film making, and the first for director Pablo Larraín to feature a female lead, the biopic tortuously follows the first lady in the week after the death of US president John F Kennedy. It will surely be written into cinematic history as the film that brought the Chilean director to Hollywood.
This idea of legacy is the lifeblood of Jackie. In an interview given during the promotion of the film, Larraín noted that “icons have always been involved in shaping their own legends, but often it ends up going somewhere else they can’t control it.” John F Kennedy’s legacy was shaped by his wife, who, as the film portrays, gave an interview to Time magazine setting his memory as a president of the people in place. Yet, in the film, Pablo Larraín is tasked with shaping the legacy of Jackie Kennedy and takes it to a political realm that is out of her control. Jackie aims to accelerate Larraín into cinematic stardom, securing his own legacy while manipulating the legacy of another to achieve this.
Natalie Portman is achingly beautiful as Jackie Kennedy, and the film is testament to her incredible skill as an actress. Larraín’s lens never strays far from her face. As he passes over the minutiae of her features, joy and pain become distinguishable only by a slight curve in her lip, a flash of her eye and the subtlest of furrows of her brow.
Yet her dark-eyed, pillbox-hatted beauty encompasses all that is wrong with the film. Supplemented by pastel-coloured, fur-trimmed nightgowns and satin dresses of every hue, Larraín demeans Jackie Kennedy, seeming to rubbish her as the silent first woman, who, after finally being given a voice following her husband’s death, is silenced still by his political entourage. The grainy recreation of Mrs Kennedy’s tour of the White House, originally shot for CNN, only serves to perpetuate this idea of her as a fanciful woman. The film gathers pace only to show Jackie, now not worthy of her husband’s surname, spiral into a chasm of drunken confusion.
The film’s disjointed structure is disorientating yet intelligent. Rejecting chronology and jumping between the past and present, Larraín utilises flashbacks to add colour to his portrait of Jackie Kennedy as a capricious woman. The audience are party to snippets of whispered conversations, yet there is a sense that Larraín is careful not to allow them uncensored access into events. The device works on an academic level, implying the silencing of Mrs Kennedy as she battles to be heard, but for an audience it’s emotionally draining.
It is not Larraín’s intent to trample upon the history of such an icon. Critics have often commented that it is only on second viewing and after intense deliberation that meaning is truly derived from his films. At its heart Jackie is a deeply feminist piece, disguising itself in the guise of inequality to prove its point. Overplaying Jackie Kennedy’s grief-stricken confusion, Larraín is critical of the notion that on the evening of the death of her husband, the first lady should fear death and destitution. The film’s message is certainly timely and relevant. As we enter into the presidency of the Donald Trump, a card-carrying anti-feminist elected in favour of America’s first female president, Larraín’s ironic depiction of a crazed first lady is politically significant.
Larraín’s message is positive, but it struggles to get out of the shadow of Larraín’s overly-fussy directing. Natalie Portman is emotionally tender on screen, but her strong performance is undermined by the director’s great political ambitions being projected on to her. It is true that once the director’s intent reveals itself Jackie Kennedy’s legacy is commemorated respectfully, but the film’s sluggish course fails to effectively convey this to the audience.
Photograph: William Gray