In some ways, Jackie is quite refreshing. Its dark and discordant tone is a step removed from the more traditional biopic. Its tragic subject is fully fleshed out and the storylines run deeper than usual. In other ways, however, the final product is a certain cold blend. While most biopics are filled with interesting characters and events that shape the titular figure, this one is more isolating; more inwardly focused. That Natalie Portman's performance is the best part was to be expected. But it's everything that swirls around her that will likely make the film fall flat for many.
The story is famous enough that many in the audience will be familiar with all but the most personal details. Jackie Kennedy (played uncannily by Natalie Portman) is the First Lady of the United States. Her husband, John F. Kennedy, is assassinated as they ride in a convertible in a Dallas parade. When he is shot in the head, Jackie holds him as he dies.
The events of the film mostly take place before and after that moment, seeking to show the life Jackie had come to know in the White House and the life she was adjusting to in the weeks after the assassination. We see her grapple with the move out of the White House, the planning of a state funeral and all of the messy details that come with the stark transition. All of this is framed through her own retelling in an interview she agrees to sit for in her own home.
Jackie is most compelling in the moments where "it goes there." Whether it is the long-lasting grief of losing a child or forlorn silhouette of a woman who's husband was absent even before he was gone, Pablo Larrain was not shy about broaching emotionally difficult subjects. And to fill these heavy moments, we get Natalie Portman doing career-best work (which is quite the accomplishment in a career that includes her performance in Black Swan). She inhabits the character in a way that brings gravity to every single scene and wrenches every bit of emotional currency from images usually confined to the history books.
And while Portman is undeniably powerful, the strength of her performance may ultimately be the movie's greatest shortcoming. Because the work she does here is so all-consuming, the supporting players seem static by comparison. For every scene where she is bringing her A-game, there is a scene partner who deflates the material. Portman's work in isolation is never such that it makes for a compelling watch on its own, so we end up with scene after scene where it feels like there should be greater emotional heft. Not the worst thing in the world, but the cumulative effect was a film that felt stunted when it shouldn't have.
Larrain certainly has an eye. So many shots feel purposeful. Portman is peak-Portman. It would be hard to watch and not be impressed by the range of emotion, the spot-on accent and the overall heat she brings to every scene. Still, somehow, the film remains a quarter-turn from complete. While its ambitions seem grand, when you break the film into pieces, it's really just Jackie--by herself--which may be art imitating life.
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