Jackie explores the horror of private grief in the public eye

The award nominations are rolling in for Natalie Portman’s starring role in Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic.

Natalie Portman in Jackie

The first thing you notice is the accent. A flat mid-Atlantic twinge that sounds bizarre before you even connect it to Natalie Portman, the accent feels wrong at first. It sounds heightened and parodic, like something affected by a guest host on Saturday Night Live who didn’t spend much time whittling away at it. The accent is likely to be what drives many people away from seeing Jackie, its presence in trailers signifying yet another biopic concerned with mimicry and point-form — but the accent is perfect. The accent is not only accurate in its bizarrely jarring way, it’s also just about the only concession that director Pablo Larraín makes to the mothballed idea of the biopic in telling the story of Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy.

The film is framed around an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist played by Billy Crudup. Though that template generally serves the most boilerplate of biopics, Larraín doesn’t use it as a guide to the narrative so much as to let Jackie speak for herself. The film moves through the trauma of the assassination, the chaos as LBJ (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in, the pain she shares with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), the tight bond she has with her assistant (Greta Gerwig), which drifts in and out of professionalism, the pain and grief in explaining to her children the unexplainable and the unbelieveable strain of “putting on a brave face” for the media. Jackie may control the interview and what she says to the journalist, but the rest of the time, she remains a First Lady in mourning.

The wraparound structure certainly isn’t perfect. It opens the door for some clunky speechifying as the film progresses from horror and confusion to profound grief and soul-searching (some pretty heavy but nevertheless effective scenes where she confesses to a priest played by John Hurt do a lot of the heavy lifting), but it’s nevertheless a bold proposition. It’s pretty much acknowledged that biographical films that focus on a specific period in the subject’s life rather than cramming an entire life into a satisfying and familiar narrative are much more effective, and if Jackie deconstructs any kind of form, it’s the former. Despite some clunky and circuitous proving-of-points in the third act, it’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before.

Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine frame the film almost like a horror film, remaining centred on Portman’s face even when she’s talking to someone else. Jackie’s grief is disorienting and alienating to the viewer as it is to her, and the film takes on an eerie, almost surreal feel as Fontaine peers into the crumbling facade of his protagonist. (This is certainly exacerbated by the fact that the film’s music is by Mica Levi, who also scored the more blatantly unnerving Under the Skin.) It’s both remarkably intimate and somehow distancing, as if getting so close to someone for such an extended period of time somehow turns them into a larger-than-life icon that we only know for ourselves.

There’s something of an exploration of the notion of performance, too, both in the way that Larraín captures as much of Portman’s face as humanly possible and the way that the film explores the constant performance that Kennedy finds herself in when “playing” the role of the First Lady. Portman does the very opposite of disappearing or “becoming” Jackie because the Jackie in the film seems like a projection itself; it’s a layered performance from Portman that may well be the best thing she’s ever done.

While Jackie may not necessarily satisfy the fact-based part of our lizard brain that requires everything to be laid out in an orderly fashion and spoon-fed to us, it’s an often remarkable film. The narrowness of focus alone separates it from most movies of its ilk, though it’s also likely to be rather alienating for some. Its purpose is not to depict a full portrait of a person’s life. The definitive Jackie Kennedy “biopic” has still to be made in that respect, but as a film about private grief in the public eye, you could hardly do better. ■

Jackie opens at the Cineplex Forum Cinemas on Wednesday, Dec. 21. Watch the trailer here: