Pablo Larraín shoulders the dubious burden of debuting two films within two weeks of each other (at least here in Asheville), meaning that those films will inevitably be compared to one another. Yes, Jackie and Neruda are both fictionalized biographical portraits of significant political figures from the same director — and this is unfortunate, as they’re starkly different pictures that should be allowed to stand on their own merits rather than being judged as bastard siblings. However, they do bear one significant similarity — that being that Larraín seems to be allergic to making a standard biopic. For this cinematic gift among many others, I am thankful to him.
Jackie is less concerned with historical detail than with emotional verisimilitude, and a great deal of that visceral expressionism can be chalked up to Natalie Portman’s remarkable performance. Portman has more than earned the Oscar nomination she received for the role, embodying Jackie Kennedy as an immediately recognizable screen presence without diverging into imitation. The mannerisms, the breathy voice sometimes slipping from poised self-control into an unchecked New England accent, even the subtle nuances of facial expression, all capture the former first lady while still remaining a character of Portman’s own design. The consistency with which she maintains her portrayal is impressive, and the emotive range she covers is a remarkable accomplishment.
Of course, part of the credit for what Portman pulls off has to go to Jackie’s deceptively simple yet inventive script, penned by Noah Oppenheim. My shock at this authorship should be understandable, considering Oppenheim’s only other writing credits are contributions to tween-lit adaptations Allegiant and The Maze Runner — and prior to that questionable curriculum vitae, he was best known as a producer for reality TV and cable news shows. His screenplay utilizes the famed “Camelot” interview published in LIFE Magazine — with Billy Crudup standing in as a fictionalized proxy for journalist Theodore H. White — as a framing device to bookend an evocative portrait of a woman in the midst of a very public crisis.
Larraín and Oppenheim structure their story carefully, getting the assassination of JFK (mostly) out of the way in a brutal first act. This leads into a contemplatively paced second act in which we see Jackie struggle to maintain a strong front in the face of aggressive overtures from Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (a subdued but suitably sleazy John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) while quietly breaking down around confidants Bobby Kennedy (a stellar Peter Sarsgaard), secretary Nancy Tuckerman (a gracious Greta Gerwig) and John Hurt in one of his final performances, a sadly appropriate role as the Kennedys’ family priest. Watching Portman’s Jackie plan a funerary procession to top Lincoln’s and try to explain to her painfully young children the intricacies of assassination is as heart wrenching as it is galvanizing, and Larraín deftly avoids exploiting the tragedy of the scenario.
If Jackie lacks the subversive humor of Neruda — although it does boast the most depressing “trying-on-outfits” montage in the history of cinema, so unremittingly bleak that it borders on black comedy — Larraín’s auteurial signature remains intact, his eye for character and detail supported by an understated visual style. But the aesthetic and narrative world he creates, like the supporting cast, is here to enable Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy. When we see her regain her composure in the third act, sticking it to noted douchebag Jack Valenti (Max Casella) and editing Crudup’s article on the spot with icy resolve, it becomes clear that this story has a complete (and completely gratifying) character arc that adds a new dimension to an oft-examined historical personage whose internal struggle I now realize I’d never adequately considered.
While part of me would like to see Isabelle Huppert take home the statue for her bizarre performance in Elle, Portman is going to be hard to beat when the Academy voters cast their ballots. Then again, I have a lousy track record with Oscar picks, so your guess is probably as good as mine when it comes down to it at the end of the month. Either way, you’ll kick yourself if you miss this film, not only for Portman’s performance, but for the humanization and emotional shading it adds to a beloved American icon. Rated R for brief strong violence and some language.
Now playing at Fine Arts Theatre.