'Not Another Camelot...'

(UK, 99 min.)
Dir. Pablo Larraín, Writ. Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt
Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.
  Photo by Pablo Larrain. / 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us,” says Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) to Life magazine reporter Theodore White (Billy Crudup). Jackie Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, Jackie O, or however one recalls her, is one of those American figures like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe who is known more as an icon than as a person. Jackie completely humanises the First Lady with the pink pillbox hat and it does so in the most unexpected ways.

It’s a week after the assassination of Jackie’s husband, John F. Kennedy (played by Caspar Phillipson), and the former First Lady of the USA offers an intimate interview that reveals her grief and complexity—but also her strength. As Jackie guides the interview—there is never a moment in which she is not in control of the conversation—this unconventional drama by Chilean director Pablo Larraín de-mythologises the iconic characters it depicts. Mrs. Kennedy is acutely aware that the Kennedys created for the public eye aren’t exactly the real thing, and her vulnerable, jarring revelations acknowledge her own complicity in shaping characters who aren’t real people. Jackie takes iconic characters and knocks them off their pedestals. These aren’t the elevated Kennedys of American lore, but the film might be the first case in which Jack and Jackie resemble human beings.

And what a remarkable human being Jackie Kennedy is in the hands of Natalie Portman. Portman outdoes herself in a layered and complex interpretation of the most famous of First Ladies. Her performance as Jackie displays impeccable breadth and depth of research and observation as she captures the accent and poise of the classy First Lady. Like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Marion Cotillard in La vie en rose, Portman’s performance in Jackie exceeds impersonation. She uses the mannerisms and physicality of the real world counterpart to create a new, unique, and full-bodied character. This Jackie is one of carefully calculated control, but also one of enormous vulnerability and strength.

Portman puts the audience into the head of a woman whose world has been shattered as the film navigates the days following the fateful shooting in Dallas and Jackie oscillates between a fragile figure who puts on a brave face as every bit of her threatens to fall apart. Her resilience and ability to keep it all together when in the public eye, however, offers a maternal figure that America needed when it lost its leader.

The excellent screenplay by Noah Oppenheim creates Jackie’s complex psyche by flashing back and forth from the interview at the Kennedy Compound at Hyanis Port to key events during the reign of the Kennedys. Surprisingly, Oppenheim takes a three-pronged approach with Jackie and shows the First Lady in three separate stages of her life and career. One thread follows Jackie as she gives CBS News and the American public a tour of the White House. This rare guided walk shows Jackie’s massive effort to restore the residence. It also highlights Mrs. Kennedy’s ability to put on a good show and kind face for the cameras, as her assistant (Greta Gerwig) reminds her to smile and act naturally as she invites the public into private corners of the White House.

Larraín shoots these scenes of the White House tour in a mix of old film stocks to mimic the archival images in which Jackie endures. On the heels of his unique aesthetic for No in which he used old analogue video to mirror the cameras used by the recorders or history, one sees a new auteur in the making as Forrest Gump gets an arthouse spin and Jackie breaks down the myths that these iconic images create. These impressively realised recreations reminds us of the aforementioned characters who seem more “real” in stories than in life, and the same goes for Jackie as she plays the role of America’s mother. Oppenheim’s script, and the poise and gravitas of Portman’s performance, illustrate the value in Jackie’s major redecorating plan, as people need to preserve their history. While Jackie doesn’t let Mrs. Kennedy off the hook for her lavish spending of public funds, it is a rare film in which it redefines the role of the First Lady to be more than a support for the man in the Oval Office. Like Miss Sloane, the film challenges one’s idea of a woman’s work in Washington.

One must make the same observations of the second thread of the film that dramatizes the fateful day of November 22, 1963 and the plans for JFK’s funeral that followed. These scenes begin with Jackie readying for the big show, just like she does for TV, as she finishes her make-up before the big parade. Once JFK dies, Jackie continues her duties and plans a grand state funeral to remind the people that America marches on in the face of tragedy. The film highlights Jackie’s acute observations and thorough appreciation of the procedures of the White House, in casual snippets of dialogue such as Jackie’s reply of “103” to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s assistant Jack Valenti when he guesses that nearly 100 top dignitaries are attending the procession. These scenes are outstanding interpretations of Jackie’s strength, but also quite critical of her actions as the opulence of the funeral made a spectacle out of President Kennedy’s death.

As the film cuts between the interview and different time frames, it builds to the inevitable money shot of JFK’s death. Here Larraín presents Jackie terrified as she cradles her husband’s exploded head in her lap. She tries to pick the wobbly bits of brain from the car as it careens to safety. Jackie scoops everything back in and holds her husband tight, but, like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put JFK back together again.

Call the nursery rhyme reference inappropriate, but the allusion is one of Larraín’s invitation as Jackie plays with elements of myth and lore surrounding the Kennedy dynasty. Jackie remarks her famous observation during her interview with White that the era of President Jack was “a brief, shining moment” in which the King and Queen of Camelot reigned over a great land. For the quick two years of Kennedy’s presidency, Jackie implies, America knew greatness. “There will not be another Camelot,” Jackie implores to the reporter. Seeing Jackie in the window between President Obama and President-Elect Trump, her words are apt.

The film culminates with this idea of Camelot as Larraín presents Jackie in mourning, listening to her husband’s beloved recording of Richard Burton singing “Camelot” from the Lerner and Lowe musical. The Queen of Camelot grieves for her late king and descends into depression and alcoholism as she chooses the right regal gown for his funeral. Knocking back a tumbler of vodka and guzzling a glass of red with the finest class one could create, Jackie brings the audience into the big empty rooms of the White House and conveys the depth of Jackie’s loss as she finds the right look between chic and funereal.

The note-perfect costumes by Madeline Fontaine wrap Portman’s Jackie in re-creations of some of the First Lady’s most recognisable ensembles. The pink pillbox hat and suit, for example, play into the Jackie Kennedy lore just right until the film splashes the clothes with blood and Jackie walks vacantly—stained—in the aftermath of the assassination. While Jackie boozes it up in the White House, trying on all her best and most conservative threads, the costumes cater to the fading Camelot mystique as Jackie tries to fit into relics from a bygone era.

Jackie gets right into the head of its subject as the cross-stitching of the screenplay breaks her down and the mesmerising editing by Sabastián Sepúlveda refracts and reframes Jackie Kennedy to illustrate the many layers of her character. This film is no by-the-numbers approach to biography. Larraín takes an art house sensibility to the most conventional of genres. Portman anchors the film while the hypnotic music by Mica Levi provides 93 minutes of chills that push new limits in score and sound design. Jackie burrows deep under the skin of Jackie Kennedy with haunting chords and orchestrations. Underpinning all of these elements, however, are the most iconic images of Jackie and the jovial, bouncy lyrics of “Camelot” that eulogise a lost kingdom and mythic heroes. There may never be another Camelot, but there surely won’t be a drama better than Jackie this year.

Jackie opens in Canada on Dec. 9