Friday, 27 January 2017


With grace and elegance, Natalie Portman plays a first-class First Lady

Written by Jason Solomons

Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career – well, certainly since she burst onto our screens as that preternaturally confident kid in Léon – playing the title role of Jackie Kennedy, embodying the quivering dignity of America’s First Lady in the hours and days after her husband, the president, was shot, practically in her lap, in November 1963.

I must stress this is an intimate psychological portrait of a movie, an arthouse experiment more than a biopic, shot in what is becoming its Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s signature style, where close-ups and crescendoes create profiles of characters that are both impressive and oppressive.

The film thus plays with fact and fiction, taking a cue from established truths but indulging in a fair amount of what-iffery, a film that takes us into places and mental spaces we could only imagine, such as the shower where she finally washes off JFK’s blood. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

I found Portman’s display chilling and haunting in its fragile control, poised like a dancer, sculpted like a Degas ballerina. Even the accent walks a tightrope between high-class private school and Long Island, as if the ‘mask’ is always about to slip.

The mix is best embodied, perhaps, by the immaculate bloodstains on that iconic pink Chanel-style two-piece, an outfit now locked away but brought to life here. ‘Let them see the horror,’ she is supposed to have said when refusing to change outfits, although this Jackie softens even that disputed quote from history to ‘Let them see what they have done.’

Again, as is his penchant, Larraín mixes film stocks (see the forthcoming neruda and the Oscar-nominated no from 2012, both with Gael García Bernal) to play with history. It’s apt here because that’s what Jackie’s doing herself, creating, forging, bending history to her will, using the past to control a future legacy.

We follow her around the White House as she displays the changes she’s made to the mansion in a historic TV interview. You really can’t tell if Larraín’s using the actual black and white footage from 1962 or making a new version of his own. It’s probably a bit of both.

The film returns to this footage frequently, poignantly, and it is intercut with scenes of the assassination, JFK’s head exploded like a watermelon all over the back of the car, Jackie trying to hold the pieces together with her hands. ‘His head was so beautiful,’ she whispers.

And then there’s the aftermath, the press interview with Life magazine (the reporter played by Billy Crudup) where she established the idea of the Kennedy White House as ‘Camelot’ and even airbrushed her chain-smoking from her image. ‘I will settle for a story that’s believable,’ agrees the timorous reporter, pliant in getting the exclusive and letting Jackie forge her own tale. They both go down in history, after all.

‘I’m not the First Lady any more,’ she says, ‘so call me Jackie.’ This is a woman – and a mother – who’s just lost everything (the transference of power to the Johnsons is brutally efficient, if politically expedient) and has just enough time to ensure her husband’s funeral is the pageant nobody really wants. Consequently, it’s a remarkable film to watch, albeit one that leaves you a bit numb with grief while still allowing Jackie’s pride to shine through.

Yet you daren’t take your eyes off it, off Portman, because of the way the screen-filling zooms make Jackie (and Natalie) look right at you, her immaculate eyes piercing your soul, her perfect hair and that face, with its oh-so-prettiness and its anger revealing Jackie’s instinct for self-preservation, her grand sense of occasion, her determination to grasp her own story and tell it her way.

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