Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is a surprising biopic because it focuses so much on contradictions: public and private; loud and quiet; the present, the past, and the future. And these contradictions all left me feeling, well, conflicted about whether Larrain’s first foray into English language film was actually successful. That isn’t to say that Jackie’s screenplay by former broadcast journalist Noah Oppenheim isn’t noteworthy. Indeed, the entire film felt understated which both contributed to its success and left me wanting more.
Natalie Portman takes on the harrowing task of portraying Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis in the days following her husband’s assassination and she largely succeeds in her portrayal. At her most determined, Portman steals the spotlight away from the film’s supporting actors, Peter Sarsgaard as brother-in-law Robert Kennedy and Billy Crudup as journalist Theodore H. White. Portman’s Kennedy-Onassis requires her castmates’ submissive attention, whether when explaining her exact thoughts as the first bullet hit her husband or demanding that she walk next to the casket during the opulent funeral procession. Portman’s mannerisms and vocalizations are eerily similar to Kennedy-Onassis’ which complement her complex work to display the inner turmoil of a woman forced to stay strong for her family and nation.
Oppenheim’s script is difficult to comprehend at first but, when taken as a whole, it is easy to imagine why he went about crafting a biopic structured so untraditionally. The film is framed by an interview that a Time journalist has with Kennedy-Onassis a week after the assassination but then features flashbacks to almost a year before when Kennedy-Onassis gave the first televised tour of the White House, and later to immediately after the assassination as funeral preparations begin. With so much temporal shifting, it’s not easy to connect the dots to the film’s larger narrative, but the film’s meandering haze of a plot adds to the overall charm of Kennedy-Onassis’ story during an intensely difficult and stressful time.
The conflict within the title character is most clear during moments without dialogue: as Portman glances past the journalist interviewing her or pauses in the doorway before telling the children their father has “gone to heaven.” Larrain emphasizes these moments of tumult with a gorgeously haunting score by sophomore film composer Mica Levi. Levi’s experimental score relies heavily on warped string instruments to give Portman’s portrayal of Kennedy-Onassis a sense of complexity it is otherwise lacking. Perhaps Larrain relies a bit too much on Levi’s inventive chords, but the film utilizes the best of its assets effectively to tell its complex story.
Beyond Portman’s stunningly accurate portrayal of the iconic former first lady, the costume and production design help Larrain put his best foot forward in crafting a successful biopic of a beloved American era. The costume and set design immerse audiences in the Kennedy’s White House and Massachusetts properties, giving Portman and the rest of the ensemble room to explore an accurate world on screen. The attention to detail within the costuming is particularly notable, with all of Portman’s outfits recreated from Kennedy-Onassis’ iconic designs.
It is hard to imagine Portman not getting serious awards season attention from her masterful take on Kennedy-Onassis among other nods for the film’s screenplay and design elements. Despite all the positives, it is easy to imagine that the film might get lost in the awards season shuffle as a film set in the 1960s with a sole female protagonist. I’m hopeful for the film’s success, though, as Jackie appeals not only to history buffs and Portman fans, but true film buffs interested in seeing how a young Chilean director flips both a uniquely American story and the tired biopic genre on its head.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the world’s leading film festivals and one of three major fall film festivals that helps kick off the release of many awards contenders. TIFF has premiered critical darlings like Room (2015) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) — and the festival this year is looking to screen several contenders this awards season including La La Land, Moonlight, and more. Grant Torre ’17 is on the ground in Toronto this year reviewing some of the most prominent films and hidden gems of the festival.
Featured Image Courtesy of tiff.net