Saturday 22 July 2017

Jackie serves as an important reminder that smart thoughtful people occasionally win elections

Natalie Portman and Jackie Kennedy
Natalie Portman and Jackie Kennedy
Ed Power

Ed Power

Jackie unfolds against the backdrop of world-shaking historical events yet this eerie study of iconic First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is at its most devastating when nothing at all is happening.

In these moments of repose director Pablo Larraín’s camera lingers on the features of the eponymous Presidential spouse, portrayed by Oscar contender Natalie Portman as a wispy mystery. 

With eyes wide and startled, pale skin drawn tightly over cheekbones, Portman is hypnotic. She captures Kennedy’s stilted politeness and softly stinging wit while always holding something back. Jackie on screen as in life is luminescent but unknowable – a blank page wrapped in a shiny frock.

There is, to be sure, lots of bustle and politicking in Larraín’s English language debut, with the shooting of JFK in downtown Dallas and his funeral parade through Washington DC captured with a news-reel veracity.

But the Chilean director has little interest in biopic box ticking and instead delves into the layers of inscrutability that surround the First Lady. 

He is assisted by a mesmerising turn from an actress lately wasted in superhero franchises and rom coms. Here she raises what could have been a mere political caper to a more rarefied plane.

That's quite an achievement given Jackie isn’t immune to cliche.

The movie employs a wheezy flashback structure with the assassination of JFK and its aftermath relayed in the context of an interview between the newly widowed Kennedy and a journalist (rumpled Billy Crudup) modelled on Life magazine writer Theodore White 

However, Jackie never quite stumbles into formulaic. We eavesdrop on the real life White House tour Jacqueline Kennedy conducted for the evening news in 1962, watch her dance with the Commander-in-Chief during a Presidential ball, observe her motionless with shock as, in the aftermath of JKF's death, Lyndon Johnson is sworn in, a little too eagerly, as his successor.

The twin centre-pieces of the film are the assassination and JFK’s funeral. The killing in Dallas is a horror show – there is blood, and brain fragments and grey tarmac rushing underneath as the stricken cortege dashes for the hospital. The funeral meanwhile is portrayed as triumph for Jackie, who faces down Johnson’s cronies to give her husband a send off that will copper fasten his legacy.

I'm not sure I buy the theory that it was thanks to Jackie that the "Camelot" image of JKF's Presidency was seared into the collective consciousness. However, the film ventures the opinion with a polite assuredness – it doesn’t matter whether you agree, only that you take its argument seriously.

With the Oval Office to be shortly inhabited with giant huffing tangerine, Jackie serves as an important reminder, moreover,that smart thoughtful people occasionally win elections too – something to hold onto in the dark years ahead.

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