Who in their right mind would want to live in the White House?
In Pablo Larraín’s heady and unsettling look at the days following the assassination of JFK, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for widow Jackie is more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power.
(It’s no coincidence that it’s reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining – Larraín is a huge Kubrick fan, with some of the shots a deliberate homage to the filmmaker.)
A three-hander starring Natalie Portman, a score by Mica Levy (Under the Skin) 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 roughly three timelines – the interview, Jackie’s infamous 1962 televised tour of the White House, and her husband’s funeral.
Leading up to the movie’s release, critics were hailing Portman’s performance as Oscar-worthy, yet clips from the movie revealing her distracting baby voice sounded absurd, no matter how ‘accurate’ it was supposed to be.
And for the first few scenes I was aghast. It’s a spot-on impersonation, albeit in a ludicrous, spoof kind of way. Even Larraín admitted he initially thought Portman’s accent was “too much.” If this had been a more conventional picture, (imagine a ten-part Netflix series entitled Camelot) it 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, they went with a “modulated” version instead.
Perhaps Portman could have tried a similar approach, but a strange thing happens once Jackie’s bubble has encircled the viewer; the diabolical lead performance almost becomes a grotesque strand in Levi’s discordant score. The actress is terrific in this crazy, mannered straitjacket, every gesture and inflection both significant and strange, her only false note the row with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard).
Portman and Kennedy aren’t a great physical match, but even that works – the tiny, frail figure of Portman swallowed up by shock and grief. She looks like a little girl lost 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. She mentions her miscarriages over and over; the conversations with the priest (John Hurt) stuck with me, as did the scene of the (now former) First Lady removing her blood-stained hosiery and scrubbing the brain matter from her nails.
Verdict: I have a newfound appreciation for the brittle talents of Natalie Portman. Jackie is like shattered glass. Best of all, it’s only 90 minutes. Go see!