If Natalie Portman doesn’t win the Best Actress gong at the Academy Awards this year for her performance as former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, then the system by which such awards are decided is very clearly broken. It is Portman’s performance that makes this film such a spellbinding work of art. Yes, the costumes are fabulous and the digital trickery used to place Portman’ Kennedy in various historical moments – such as a televised tour of the White House that the real Jackie Kennedy hosted two years before her husband’s assassination in Dallas – is impressive and the attention to detail (from blood stains and bruises to the set design and the historical recreations) is splendid, but everything and everybody pales in comparison to Portman’s remarkable turn as an intensely reserved woman who is pushed to the limits as she juggles her responsibilities to her husband, her family and her country.
Much like the real-life figure she is portraying, Portman possesses an overpowering beauty that Chilean director Pablo Larrain uses to great effect in illustrating the galvanising effect Kennedy had on those around her. She could be charming and chilling in equal measure, and refused to let anybody tell her what she should do when it came to organising a public farewell for her husband. Yes, she took advice from the likes of brother-in-law and friend Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), but ultimately it would be her decision, despite security concerns, to deliver a spectacle the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the death of Abraham Lincoln almost 100 years earlier. Portman nails the breathy voice, meticulous posture and steely determination with such precision that any absence of a physical resemblance between the actress and Kennedy is easily forgiven (although it must be said that Portman does bear a resemblance to Kennedy that is far greater than we have seen in other celluloid portrayals of real-life figures). In a meticulously nuanced performance, Portman never presents as somebody simply trying to imitate another.
By focussing his film (from a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim) on a very particular period in Kennedy’s life, Larrain avoids the biopic quandary of deciding how much to leave out. This is not an examination of Kennedy’s life, it is an exploration of grief and personal tragedy being played out under intense public scrutiny and Larrain is able to deliver a much fuller picture of this specific period than any standard biographical drama ever could. Yes, we do see the tragedy in Texas unfold, but much of what we learn about Jackie is via conversations with various individuals, the most significant of which is an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) that sees Jackie portrayed as calculating and controlling in her desire to protect her own legacy and that of her husband. Jackie knows that her husband was far from perfect, but she will not have his reputation sullied. Conducted just a week or so after JFK’s death, Jackie taunts Crudup’s unnamed interviewer (widely accepted to be Theodore White of Life magazine who was summoned by Jackie to the Kennedy compound) with snippets of her true self, only to declare immediately afterwards that she will never let him publish anything remotely compromising.
More intimate conversations ensue between Jackie and a Catholic priest (John Hurt), while a very fine Greta Gerwig provides both emotional and practical support as social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. But, are the fleeting, wrenching displays of grief simply a cynical con job? It is Portman’s meticulous, provocative and unsentimental embodiment of this iconic character from the annals of American political history that make it impossible to know for sure. Gifted a great screenplay from Oppenheim and an uncompromising vision from a director renowned for his ability to present a feature as though it is a documentary, Portman delivers a performance that trumps her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan and might just – if there is any justice in this world – result in her second gold statuette.