Natalie Portman's evolution as an actress seems to operate on a 6-year cycle, at least in this century. 2004 saw her give great and different performances in quirky indie Garden State and heartbreak drama Closer, with the latter earning her an Oscar nomination. She followed that year up with less than stellar work, but then graduated to Oscar winner with her immersive turn in dark ballet thriller Black Swan. Now, in 2016, after years of weak work, she's leapt forward once more in Jackie, her greatest effort yet.
Playing a famous figure always invites a particular amount of scrutiny. How does the likeness match up to the real person? How is the impersonation? Is it only an impersonation? How deep is the performance and how effortfully (or -lessly) does the actor capture the person's essence? The audience already has something of an ingrained familiarity with the character onscreen and likely with the actor portraying them, so there are several layers of preconceptions that the performer must break through.
Portman shatters them all with a taut, tense, intimidating turn as the titular First Lady, whose name and image are so iconic that surely Portman could be forgiven for focusing on perfecting her impression through poise and posture. Except Portman digs deeper, creating a haunting portrait of a tough, confident woman in command at the precise moment that her life is falling apart.
Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have decided to needle in on the JFK assassination and focus on how Jackie handled the days following her husband’s horrific murder. It’s juicy, heart-wrenching material for a biopic, but the presentation here is prickly and cold, less an opportunity to commiserate with the famous widow than an eerie observation of how grief is muted and mutated when put under a microscope.
Jackie is distraught, but has to put on a brave face, except there’s more to it than that. Beyond simply having to tough it out in front of the pervasive media, she almost immediately identifies the importance of preserving her husband’s image and deftly develops a plan to build the bulletproof myth of Kennedy’s Camelot that we still recognize today.
This includes a risky and almost obnoxiously ornate funeral procession through the streets of Washington, a grand display of the fallen President’s king-like stature that Jackie grows adamant about as nearly every advisor in sight recommends against it. Making these headstrong decisions one of the defining aspects of the movie’s protagonist removes sentimentality from the occasion entirely and even sideswipes sympathy.
Of course Jackie is a sympathetic figure here on some level, but it's clear that Larraín isn't interested in tugging heartstrings so much as rearranging them. Jackie grieves, but never grovels, never asks for anyone to cry with her. She puts all her effort into posthumously coronating her husband and forming this mythic iconography borrowed in part not only from King Arthur, but more specifically Lerner and Loewe.
Larraín chronicles Jackie’s efforts as a flurry of fleeting feelings, emotions encased in lockets of dreamscape delirium. The whole cinematic experience swirls, so we’re constantly held in some sort of limbo between the protagonist’s headspace and some distant point of observation. We bend back through time and relive JFK’s assassination from Jackie’s point of view, her face flecked with blood and brain matter as the presidential car races off through ominously empty Dallas streets.
Then we’re snapped back to the present, at least Jackie’s present, except even that’s not quite accurate since the movie uses an interview conducted by Life magazine writer Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) one week after the President’s death as a narrative framing device. Time loses its anchor here, which along with Mica Levi’s haunting score allows Larraín to further establish his sort-of-biopic as a lucid dream that doesn’t walk a straight line of historical facts, but zigs and zags its way around the line’s periphery.
All of this adds up to a mesmerizing meditation on identity, celebrity, and legacy. It feels both extremely specific and yet coolly aware of the expansive strands these themes collectively link to. The specificity naturally pertains to the plot and the subject, but at the singular centre of it all is Portman’s performance.
We may have to wait another six years for the next stage of Portman’s actress evolution, but the wait’s been worth it every time. Jackie is her finest work to date, much more than a sterling impersonation, instead a startling interpretation of one icon who helped create another. Portman’s Jackie is a whispery firecracker who’s frankly frightening at times and always fascinating.
While the movie is clearly a commentary on the Kennedy legacy, it doubly operates as an ode to Portman’s own ongoing legacy as an actress. Even if she’s rather punctual, she still surprises when she returns to command the screen like this. Her performance here will be tough to top, but give her time and she only gets better.