Friday 13 December 2019

Film review - Jackie: A very long way from Camelot

Pablo Larrain's biopic set in the aftermath of JFK's killing is a masterclass

American dream shattered: Natalie Portman in Jackie
American dream shattered: Natalie Portman in Jackie
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Taken to America's bosom as a kind of national widow, a secular Madonna, following her husband's assassination, Jackie Kennedy was never quite forgiven for moving on with her life and marrying again. She married badly, and endured rough treatment at the hands of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis before dying of cancer at the age of 64, leaving behind a hazy image of a stylish, clever, unlucky woman - forever obscured by JFK's giant shadow.

But in Pablo Larrain's extraordinary new film, Jackie Bouvier steps boldly into the light.

She's been portrayed before, of course, in movies and TV dramas, by everyone from Jaclyn Smith and Blair Brown to Jeanne Tripplehorn and Katie Holmes, but always as a glamorous adjunct to the Kennedy myth. In Jackie, however, we discover that she more than anyone was responsible for creating that myth. Larrain's film is set immediately following Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963, as a shaken and traumatised Jackie (Natalie Portman) tries to come to terms with new and radically altered circumstances.

The film, which leaps back and forth in time with dizzying virtuosity, is built around an interview she gave to Life magazine just one week after her husband's death.

A journalist called Theodore White (Billy Crudup) comes to the Kennedy bolt hole at Hyannis Port to catch what he must have hoped would be the scoop of the decade - a sneak peak at the private grief of the martyred president's widow. But White quickly discovers that he's not the one in charge, and that Jackie has an agenda of her own.

Portman's Jackie quivers at times with suppressed emotion but is a model of self-control, a clever woman in the midst of a tornado who knows that if she doesn't hold herself together, all will be lost. Once a journalist herself, she's well able for White's gently probing questions and snaps at him when he goes too far before taking over the conversation entirely.

JFK, we are told, was fond of the Broadway musical Camelot, and we hear Richard Burton sharply singing the title song while Larrain's camera gives us dream-like snapshots of the Kennedy White House in its pomp. We see a resplendent Jackie applauding a performance by the cellist Pablo Casales, greeting artists and writers and waltzing elegantly with her beaming husband.

This, though, is how Jackie wants it all to be remembered: the reality of Kennedy's presidency, and their marriage, was rather less perfect, and we're given subtle intimations of what she was expected to endure. Her myth-making succeeded, but Jackie herself may not have been able to buy into it.

JFK himself remains a shadowy figure, seen only in hazy flashbacks and played by the uncanny - if rather short - lookalike Caspar Phillipson.

We do, though, get a sense of Jackie's closeness to Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), her loyal confidante who supports her desire to stage manage the state funeral, isn't afraid to throw his weight around and even has a go at bullying incoming president Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch).

Larrain's film is no dry historical narrative: it's a heightened, restless, operatically emotional film that tries to catch the elusive character of Jackie Bouvier by examining her in her darkest hour. The movie's pyrotechnics are breathtaking, but never distracting.

Everything, from Stephane Fontaine's opulent cinematography to Mica Levi's tense, up-screeching soundtrack and Portman's terrifyingly self-possessed performance, complement each other perfectly, and achieve a rare kind of cinematic unity.

Portman gives no mere impersonation, but searches for and finds Jackie's tenacious essence. She give us everything from the famous fashion sense that seems to come from the deepest part of her person to that strange, strangulated mid-Atlantic accent that denoted an imaginary American upper class she hoped either to belong to, or invent.


(15A, 100mins)

5 Stars

Films coming soon...

Hacksaw Ridge (Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington); T2 Trainspotting (Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald); Denial (Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson); Sing (Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson).

Irish Independent

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