Pablo Larrain’s harrowing portrait of a widowed Jackie Kennedy in the days following the President’s assassination has sadly intriguing contemporary resonance.
Death of a Dreamby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Pablo Larrain uses his distinctive allusive style to focus on the grief of Jackie Kennedy, one of the iconic image makers of the 1960s. Just a week after her husband was assassinated in that ill-fated presidential motorcade in Dallas, the still-traumatised widow was interviewed in an estate in Hyannis Port by a Time magazine journalist. And that’s how Larrain’s film starts, with a chain-smoking Jackie in precarious control, yet with a steely determination to protect the president’s legacy, to maintain the Camelot myth that had arisen around the starry Kennedy ‘court’ but at the same time fiercely preserve her privacy.
The film moves smoothly back and forth between time zones, between archive footage and recreation – the grim, grief-stricken and uncertain present day of the interview, the events of the assassination itself, coping with its immediate aftermath – arranging the funeral and abrupt arrangements to move out of her home in the White House so that Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson can move in – and happier times, when the Kennedy star was at its political and cultural zenith.
Natalie Portman gives a virtuoso performance as Jackie, capturing her breathy feminine tones and the fashion-plate public image that hides inner devastation, hinting at a contained breakdown in the privacy of her own empty bedroom. One of the film’s most painful scenes is a prolonged close-up of her splattered face as she slowly wipes away the remnants of her murdered husband’s brains and blood. Another is as she finally removes her candy-pink suit and blood-soaked stockings (incidentally, they have been preserved for posterity in a temperature-controlled vault that cannot be opened until 2103).
She is the film’s constant focus, framed by Larrain at the centre of almost every shot, roaming the deserted corridors of the White House, alone at last with pills and vodka playing Kennedy’s favourite recording of the musical Camelot, confronting the male coterie of administrators that surround her as she battles them to have her husband’s funeral as memorable state a occasion as Lincoln’s and ensure his legacy is respected in what she sees as a suitably dignified and honourable way.
As a framing device, Billy Crudup’s journalistic interview jars slightly, though it brings into sharp focus the contrast between Jackie’s public and private personas. Peter Sarsgaard is Bobby Kennedy, with little to do except be supportive. President John F Kennedy himself is seen briefly, impersonated by lookalike Caspar Phillipson. Greta Gerwig is almost unrecognisably low key as social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, perhaps Jackie’s closest confidante at that time. John Hurt is a Catholic priest with a shaky Irish accent who gives Jackie spiritual advice as they walk a bleak avenue of trees and Richard E Grant makes an appearance as the Kennedy’s friend Bill Walton.
Was Camelot a legend or was it ultimately just a fairy tale, Bobby Kennedy questions as the Kennedys’ day now seems over for ever. They tried to make a better world, but the reality of the assassination followed by the assassination of the presumed assassin has left an emptiness, a sense that Kennedy’s brief eighteen months as president had been too short to achieve any lasting legacy. It surely can be no coincidence that a film about the potential for good of the presidency in the right hands was released in the US as a new president, Donald Trump was voted in, and is released here in the UK on the very day of his inauguration.
Larrain, the director of No, currently has another movie on release, Neruda, to be seen in the UK in April.
Jackie is released on 20 January 2017 in the UK.