“I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real,” offers Jacqueline Kennedy, cradling a lit cigarette. That she’s sharing this with a reporter is not lost on him, her, or us, and it’s this fascination gap that is probed in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, a potent historical drama depicting the former first lady’s struggles in the days following her husband’s assassination, and a film anchored by an achingly vulnerable turn from Natalie Portman as the titular presidential widow.
Strident orchestral strings signal the opening of the film, followed by Portman’s face, in close-up. She is a paragon of graceful agony. It is a week after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, and Jackie is laying low at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. She has consented to an interview with Theodore H. White of Life magazine (Billy Crudup)—one of three narrative framing devices employed by the gifted Chilean filmmaker Larrain, along with her confession to a priest (John Hurt, excellent), and footage of her much-ballyhooed tour of the White House with CBS News.
We witness different sides to Jackie in each of these interactions: her public persona, flashing that irresistible smile to the TV news cameras; her semi-public persona, exuding strength, cutting wit, and strategy in painting a fairy tale picture of the Kennedy White House as “Camelot” to Life; and her private grief at the loss of her husband, confessing to the elderly priest that she often wishes she could join him in the great beyond. The result is a finely etched, layered interpretation of Jacqueline Kennedy—and one that will surely draw comparisons to Stephen Frears’s The Queen.
Few actresses portray inner torment quite like Portman, whose youthful visage exudes childlike terror, and with it, pathos. It is what made her Oscar-winning turn as a ballerina in Black Swan so transfixing; a frightened and desperate little girl trapped in the body of a grown woman striving for acceptance. She instills similar qualities in Jackie, who copes with her impossible circumstances by wandering the halls of the White House like Danny Torrance in The Shining, popping pills, and occasionally lashing out at her brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems more concerned with optics and the state of the Kennedy legacy than the state of his brother’s wife and children.
“There was blood everywhere… there were so many pieces… I had to hold his head together,” Jackie tells White—before warning him that there’s no way in hell he’s printing it. The film then flashes back to the moments immediately after the Kennedy assassination, as the shell-shocked first lady escorts her dying husband to Parkland Hospital, and later joins Lyndon B. Johnson for his swearing-in as president onboard Air Force One, all the while refusing to remove her bloodstained clothes. In one devastating sequence—one of several “Oscar moments” delivered by Portman in the film—we see Jackie scrubbing her husband off her face in the mirror, her tears mixing with his blood.
In order to, it seems, save herself from confronting her misery head-on, she not only paints that heavenly picture of Camelot to White, but also channels it into the funeral arrangements for her husband, vacillating between a grand procession like Lincoln and something decidedly less awe-inspiring. She locks horns with Jack Valenti (Max Casella), Johnson’s political consultant, over the security risks posed by her husband’s eight-block procession through the streets of Washington, as well as Bobby, who she feels sees her as nothing more than a fashionable “debutante.”
It is the quiet moments with John Hurt’s gentle priest, however, that grant us the biggest glimpse into Jackie’s soul. She wrestles with her faith, saying, “I think God is evil,” and later alludes to her husband’s wandering eye, confessing that, “Jack and I hardly ever spent the night together.” She worries about men’s perception of her, asking, “When men see me, what do you think they feel?” later lamenting how “I used to make them smile.” And Portman handles these scenes with a delicateness and quiet dignity that proves nothing short of mesmerizing. There is much to like about Jackie, from the pitch-perfect period detail to Noah Oppenheim’s inspired script, but it’s Portman’s portrait of grief that will linger long after the credits roll.