Who in their right mind would want to live in the White House?
In Pablo Larraín’s unsettling look at the days following the assassination of JFK, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power. It’s not a coincidence that it is reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The director is a huge Kubrick fan and it’s been reported in the press that some of the shots were a deliberate homage to the legendary filmmaker.
With this three-hander starring Natalie Portman as widow Jackie Kennedy, an incredible score from Mica (Under the Skin) Levy, and a gore-spattered pink Chanel suit, Larraín has rejected a cradle-to-the-grave biopic formula in favour of the experimental snapshot.
There’s a basic framework in the form of an interview Jackie gave to a journalist (Billy Crudup) a week after the assassination. The film jumps back and forth between three timelines – the interview, Jackie’s infamous 1962 televised tour of the White House, and her husband’s funeral.
Leading up to the film’s release, critics were hailing Portman’s performance as Oscar-worthy. There seemed to be a potential stumbling block as Portman’s imitation of Jackie’s whispery baby voice sounds absurd, no matter how “accurate” it’s supposed to be.
If this had been a more conventional picture, (imagine a Netflix series entitled Camelot) the accent might have been disastrous. When Claire Foy was asked about getting the young Queen Elizabeth’s cut-glass 1950s accent right for The Crown, she said it would sound so alien today that they decided to go with a carefully modulated version instead.
Perhaps Portman could have tried a similar approach, but a strange thing happens as her diabolical performance becomes another string in Levi’s discordant score. It works! The wooden actress is terrific in this crazy, mannered straitjacket, every gesture and inflection significant and strange, her only false note the row with brother-in-law Bobby.
She isn’t a perfect physical match but even that works – the tiny, frail figure of Portman swallowed up by shock and grief. She resembles a little girl clopping about in Kennedy’s heels and bouffant hair, like she raided the dressing-up box.
She’s not entirely fragile – she’s vicious as she wrong foots Crudup’s unnamed journalist. “Don’t think fer a secahnd I’m going to leht you pwint thaht,” she lisps.
This is Jackie crafting her husband’s legacy. It’s the gulf between her public persona (style icon, embodiment of the American Blue Blood) and her private persona, the woman who mentions her miscarriages again and again. With the brittle talents of Natalie Portman, Jackie is like shattered glass. Best of all, it’s only 90 minutes. Go see!