Monday, 30 January 2017

Film Review: Pablo Larraín's intimate Jackie is a biopic unlike any other before it

It's tough to find a singular word to describe Pablo Larraín's Jackie. The film captures so many feelings and so many moments that cutting the whole thing down to one lonely adjective would fail to do his film justice. Biopics are tough films to discuss. After all, through which alley do you approach the film? Is it down to how well the lead actor recaptures their character's persona? Do you look at its historical accuracy? Historical accuracy seems very important to many people when discussing biopic films, yet Jackie is unique in how it almost destroys this idea entirely.

Jackie takes place in the weeks surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and focuses on his widow Jackie (Natalie Portman). It's framed from the perspective of a now famous interview she gave following the assassination, and cuts back and forth between the days both before and after the death of her husband. In the film, Jackie talks frequently about public appearance and perception. She is presented as a woman who strives to make an impression, to make her mark in history and craft a legacy. Are her actions selfish? Or is she doing this because it's what she believes the American citizens deserve?

Jackie never settles on a definitive answer, and neither should it. To do so would be to serve an injustice to Jackie Kennedy herself. Larraín's film doesn't strive to present Jackie Kennedy as a lovable and deeply human figure, it just wants us to feel what she feels. Even then, it faces a tough challenge. The interview that the film repeatedly draws back to shows Jackie Kennedy as a dominating but delicate individual. She's more than happy to allow herself to break down in front of the man questioning her, but she refuses to let him print any word from her mouth that exposes too many details: "I don't smoke" she says, in between puffs on a cigarette; "I hope you don't for one second believe I will allow you to print that" she delivers following a heartbreaking description of the moments after her husband was taken from her.

Larraín's biopic is presented almost entirely in close up, creating an atmosphere as minimalist and intimate as the film's title itself. It also forces Portman to tell most of her thoughts through facial expression alone, and she stands up to the challenge. Jackie combines its stark visuals with Portman's performance to create a tone and mood that blend seamlessly. An early shot in the film shows Jackie Kennedy applying her make up on Air Force One while looking into a mirror that fragments her reflection, and then returns to this same shot later on - with the camera positioned in an uncomfortable proximity to her face -  as we watch her cry while she wipes her husband's blood from her skin. Later, Jackie is sidelined within the frame (a rare occurrence in the film) as Lynden Johnson is sworn into Office almost immediately after the assassination - Jackie is distant and visibly elsewhere, yet Portman snaps back into character the moment Jackie hears the words "Mrs President" addressed to someone other than herself.

It's a career best performance from Portman. Jackie is deeply rooted in the way Kennedy herself had a number of personas that all essentially came down to the same goal, and Portman is able to portray all of these different feelings and moods masterfully. Her performance as an awkwardly likeable First Lady giving a tour of the White House is entirely different to the way she delivers the heartbreaking truth to her children in an unforgettable scene, yet neither are remotely similar to how she acts when she is beside Father McSorley (John Hurt, exceptional) and discussing her religious beliefs in connection to the death of husband. She expertly conveys the various personas of Kennedy but Jackie's script succeeds in keeping everything grounded in the same reality of forging a legacy. She knows her husband achieved nothing close to the likes of Abraham Lincoln, but she will not have him forgotten like the similarly assassinated James Garfield.

Jackie, despite its intimate feel, is best experienced on a big screen in a loud cinema. Its intoxicating, borderline uncomfortable visual style appears breathtaking when displayed in front of you, and the film's soundtrack - mostly comprised of isolated horn pieces that place their crescendos in unusual places - combines with the cinematography to create a wholly unique affair. Jackie feels incredibly intimate, but also like it's crossing a line that shouldn't be crossed. Despite pushing historical accuracy out of its eye line, it gives the impression of something deeply personal and passionate. It's a bizarre combination of moods and tones that somehow forms something staggering. It creates an atmosphere that's impossible to forget and wraps it around a character that feels the same.

Jackie Kennedy wanted a legacy. For herself, and for her husband. She got that. Larraín's film, Portman's performance and Noah Oppenheim's script respect this and masterfully portray it. To some, legacy is fantastically important. To others, it isn't. Legacy isn't something I can relate to myself; I won't leave a mark on this world, and nor do I really plan to. Jackie has a way of taking a theme like this and making it feel universal, even in its breathless intimacy. To return to the opening of this review, one word isn't enough to justify a film of this calibre. It is an entirely unique experience that, like all the best biopics should, takes an iconic figure and allows us to see them as a whole new person; but Jackie goes one step further. It doesn't present Jackie Kennedy as a new person, rather as new persons, plural. It is simply outstanding film making.

Jackie does not strive for emotion. It doesn't push for energy or even attempt to create a sense of passing time. It exists in a bubble - early on, it's tough to place each sequence into chronological order. The film finds its home in a kind of uneasy stillness, almost like a series of photographs that are failing to develop. The film is, like Jackie Kennedy herself, a performance of sorts. It is aware of its own artifice but finds ways to turn this falseness into personality and identity. Jackie Kennedy performed for the people while Jackie performs to the audience. It doesn't want to be just another biopic, it wants to be more. Like Kennedy herself, it selfishly wants to leave a legacy. With any luck, it will.

In A Sentence

Breathtakingly intimate and featuring a career best performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie is a superlative biopic that transcends every genre gimmick and forges an entirely unique path of its own.

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