Film Review: Natalie Portman delivers a searing, Oscar-worthy performance in Jackie (USA, 2016)

Jacqueline Kennedy (Onassis) has been depicted on the silver and small screens before but Jackie is the first film to really capture the complex nature of this remarkable woman. The film is not strictly a biopic in that it only focuses on a number of key events in Kennedy’s life prior to and in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination in 1963. But what this drama does do well is hone in on these important points to create an intense and visceral film that really gets at the heart and nature of this tragedy.

The film is written by Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant) and it is one that lifts the veil on this iconic figure’s private world. Natalie Portman puts in an Oscar-winning performance as Kennedy by capturing her vulnerability, strength and grief as well as other essential things like her accent and mannerisms. Kennedy’s role in the aftermath of the assassination is elevated and in doing so this film could have turned into a kind of exploitative voyeurism but instead it tells things from her perspective and handles the proceedings with the poise and grace that this former first lady of the United States was known for. It also handles the sensitive subject matter with a rather delicate hand (save for the graphic depiction of the events of 22 November 1963.)

Director, Pablo Larraín (No) and his production team have paid careful attention to recreating the look and feel of the period. Kennedy is shown wearing the famous pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat that was smeared with blood as she travels in Air Force One and defiantly declares that the world should see what it had done. The film also recreates in black and white a special that Kennedy had starred in a few years prior to John F Kennedy’s death where she describes her contributions to decorating the White House. The other major plot point sees a forward magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) quizzing Jackie in the weeks following her husband’s death. Jackie’s answers are frank, smart and illuminating.

Jackie is an intense film that has a certain starkness to it. Portman is often shown in close-ups and she conveys a multitude of emotions that were experienced by this young widow- from having to console her two young children and grieve her husband to her fiery determination in trying to ensure that his legacy was upheld. Jackie also has a rather intrusive string score by Mica Levi. At its best it reinforces the tragedy, particularly in the scenes where Kennedy walks alongside her husband in the funeral march where JFK’s body is led by a horse-drawn carriage (and this scene is just like what happened to Abraham Lincoln in 1865.)

This latest film about Jacqueline Kennedy (Onassis) is not a comprehensive biopic but it is a searing and intimate portrait of an amazing woman and the complicated emotions and circumstances she experienced in the wake of JFK’s death. This film is not a linear story but is instead a rather messy and chaotic one that reflects the raw and gritty real-life events that it is trying to portray. In all, this is one bold and heartfelt look at a tragic chapter in U.S. history.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Jackie is released in Australian cinemas on January 12.