By Peter W. Sheehan
Starring: Natalie Portman, Caspar Phillipson, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, and Billy Crudup. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Scenes of injury detail). 100 min.
This American biographical drama takes the viewer deep into events immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 23, 1963. The film focuses on Jackie Kennedy, his wife, and the traumatic effect of JFK's assassination on her, and her children. It begins with an interview conducted of Jackie Kennedy by a magazine journalist (Billy Crudup).
There are two things that are undisputed in the history covered by the movie. The first is that the assassination of JFK (Caspar Phillipson) was an event that shook the world. Kennedy's death was an especially tragic moment in America's political history. The second is that JFK left behind a grieving widow, who earned universal respect for the dignity and fortitude of her sorrow.
Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jackie is outstanding. It is not pure impersonation. Rather, she attempts to capture Jackie Kennedy sufficiently accurately to convey the personal nature of the drama and complexity of a person facing enormous sadness, and challenged to maintain the legacy of a dead husband's vision. She and her husband forged a vision for others to see and hear, but Portman inhabits her role to also offer comment on the nature of the Presidency and the White House culture that existed in American society at the time. Jackie Kennedy was a woman of intelligence and determined resolve, married to an unfaithful husband, who nevertheless inspired the world. Portman nails Jackie Kennedy's commitment to honouring her husband, while attempting to give meaning to her own life.
Something about movie actresses attracts them strongly to ‘impersonation’ as an acting device. Meryl Streep used it brilliantly in ‘The Iron Lady’ (2011), as Helen Mirren used it in ‘The Queen’ (2006). Nicole Kidman captured the glamour, but not the personality of Grace Kelly in ‘Grace of Monaco’ (2014). Portman tackles ‘impersonation’ differently from all three. There are impressive signs of faithful impersonation in Portman's speech, hairstyle and dress, but the film is all about the personal, experienced drama of the wife of a President, cut down in his prime who was loved by herself and others, despite the imperfections of JFK that Jackie admits to her Confessor-Priest (John Hurt).
The film works best when Portman plays the grieving wife, desperate to keep the dream of Camelot alive. It works less well when Jackie is interviewed by a journalist, who knows she wants to control what the public will wish to hear. Away from the probing interview, she is a person trying to cope with what is happening around her, saying and doing what she needs to do and say. In interview, she is circumspect and more equivocal. Photographs of the real Jackie Kennedy never appear. It is Portman's dramatic portrayal of Jackie Kennedy that is clearly intended to capture the essence of the determination of a self-willed woman to survive.
The movie is directed by Pablo Lorrain to look at America's grief and the social upheaval that accompanied the death of a highly popular President. Very unusually, archival-looking historical footage is constructed and used, that only has actors in it. People play out historical roles and some very strongly such as Peter Sarsgaard who plays Robert Kennedy, JFK's brother. An excellent musical score provides a compelling background to the events that the movie depicts.
This is a memorable film that encapsulates dramatically the personal experience lying behind a tragedy that threw the world's most powerful country into crisis. Impersonation is not the prime purpose of the film. Rather, it is the mechanism Pablo Larrain chooses, and Portman employs so well to intimately portray a particularly turbulent time, and the grief of a remarkable woman.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Entertainment One Films. Released 12 January 2017. Image used is the press movie image.