Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There has never been a first lady quite like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Michelle Obama may rival her grace, style and diplomacy. However, when it comes to the public’s insatiable fascination with the woman behind the most powerful man in the world, we can look no further than the elusive allure of the queen of Camelot, Mrs. Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín’s biopic JACKIE is soaked in atmosphere, bleeding emotion, life, death, happiness, sadness and anxiety. Natalie Portman’s haunting performance coupled with Mica Levi’s soul-piercing score are what makes this an irrefutable standout.
Working from Noah Oppenheim’s script, which focuses on the most crucial sliver of the former First Lady’s life, Larraín captures a portrait of a woman in transition from someone who sought the public’s approval to a woman in full control of it – and from a wife to a reluctant widow. In the wrap-around device – one that actually provides brilliant context to her metamorphosis – we meet a resolute Jackie (Portman) in late 1963 as she’s being interviewed by a journalist (Billy Crudup). She’s recently moved from the White House to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and still bears the emotional scars of witnessing her husband’s assassination. As she recounts those blood-curdling events of November 22,1963, she also reflects upon her two-year stint dwelling in and decorating the iconic residence, as well her dealings with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), media liaison Jack Valenti (Max Casella) and assistant/ confidante Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).
Larraín and Oppenheim aren’t afraid of telling her story non-linearly – nor are they fearful of knocking her off a perfect pedestal, propping her on a milk crate instead. It’s a bold choice and it pays off. The real Jackie probably would’ve hated it as it makes her look fallible, flawed and attainably human – things that are important to stoke audience empathy. At times, her vanity is on full display – particularly when she’s lamenting to the priest (John Hurt) about potential destitution like other former First Ladies, or drunkenly wandering her private quarters draped in her glamourous finery, or when she’s hating on her gorgeous Hyannis Port manse, labelling it “cold.” It’s forgivable as her mental state is crystal clear on what’s she’s really worried about (and, more likely, doubtful of): the uncertainty in her ability to rebuild a home filled with as much love as the castle she built with John. What’s best is that the filmmakers leave it to the audience to interpret the nuances and subtleties (shocking since this is from the screenwriter of THE MAZE RUNNER and ALLEGIANT).
Where this drama primarily succeeds is within its powerful imagery, which is a collaboration between Portman’s incredible skills, Oppenheimer’s words and Larraín’s precision: A traumatized Jackie frantically scrubs her dead husband’s blood off her face. Her shell-shocked demeanor is showcased when she’s forced to witness Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) sworn in on Air Force One. As she roams their private quarters, her composed temperament oscillates from nervous, to apprehensive, to shaken to her core. Her stoic facade crumbles as she unbuttons her blood-stained Chanel suit, peeling off her blood-splattered nylons, washing off her husband’s blood in the shower. The magnitude of these situations weighs heavy on the viewer. Tight shots, like the conversations she has with her priest and Nancy, connote intimacy as much as they speak to Jackie’s oppressive, claustrophobic psychological state. Plus, Larraín’s able to magically maintain a consistency between the different formats he utilizes.
Other high marks go to Madeline Fontaine’s pristine costume design, comprised of covetable fashions that I want my closet stocked with immediately. Production designer Jean Rabasse has an exquisite eye for detail, given that so much of Jackie’s expression was her decor. He sets the stage for an immersive experience. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is unparalleled. Sebastián Sepúlveda’s sharp cuts augment the narrative’s swirling fluidity and electric, at times frantic pace, mirroring Jackie’s mindset. Levy’s indelible score could be right at home in a horror film – which is appropriate, since that’s what Jackie’s life becomes.
Even though JACKIE can be construed as highfalutin, pretentious and sometimes up its own butt, it all works masterfully. If someone along the chain hadn’t fully committed to the bit, this would be a disaster. “There won’t be another Camelot,” the iconic paragon of strength and poise tells the reporter. And she was right.
JACKIE plays AFI Fest on November 14 and opens in select theaters on December 2.