Natalie Portman's blazing performance

Directed by Pablo Larrain
Written by Noah Oppenheim
100 minutes, rated MA 15+
4 stars

The best decision that producer Darren Aronofsky made with Noah Oppenheim’s script for Jackie was not to direct it himself. No criticism intended, but by offering it to the Chilean director Pablo Larrain – a far from obvious choice – Aronofsky prevented any pandering to an American audience. Far from it.

Larrain does not idolise the Kennedys nor American politics in general. Indeed, as a man who grew up under the dictator Pinochet in Chile (the indirect subject of one of his films, No), Larrain comes to the story with an acute understanding of power, and few of the inhibitions that might have afflicted an American director.

Larrain’s recent work (Neruda, The Club) shows that he is political to his bootstraps, but determined to go his own way, in terms of narrative. That means two things: Jackie goes in closer on the bloody aftermath of Kennedy’s murder than all previous films, determined not to blink; and it’s free from the bio-pic conventions that drown so many other stories of the famous in homily and redemption. This is drenched instead in anger, recrimination and trauma.

Oppenheim’s script had most of this already, when Aronofsky took it on around 2010, but significant rewrites took place during a hiatus in shooting in Paris. Specifically, Larrain strengthened the roles of the reporter and the priest who bookend the film, adding to the philosophical undertones. Both encounters are a sort of confession, except that she has committed no sin.

The reporter played by Billy Crudup arrives at the beginning to the Kennedy compound house in Hyannis Port where Mrs Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has taken refuge just after the burial. She warns him that she will edit every word to her satisfaction. History, she knows, is written by those who bend it to their will and she is ready to craft a legend. John Hurt plays the world-weary priest, an inspired choice. She talks to him reluctantly, at the urging of Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who thinks religion might console her. She’s too angry with God to believe that, but her dialogue with Hurt’s unnamed priest broadens the context, weaving the final third of the film into a tour-de-force of emotion and self-examination.

Natalie Portman’s performance is as good as everyone says – partly because she dares to enter the less-than-comprehending end of Mrs Kennedy’s personality, with that high, patrician Yankee accent and an innocence that seems almost gormless. The film fractures time completely: we don’t get the assassination scenes till near the end and the aftermath is the beginning. Binding it together is a partially monochrome recreation of the tour of the White House that Mrs Kennedy gave to a television crew in 1962 – the first time a First Lady had done that. Jackie is nervous as a cat but determined to show the American people that she has returned to the White House many of its original features and furniture. Richard E Grant plays Bill Walton, the painter and family friend who advised her on the redecoration, and acted as her confidant. This preoccupation with surfaces gives the film a clear duality: the surfaces hide the secrets.

How much of this can we trust? Solid research went into the detailing – the clothes, the décor – and much of her reaction to the trauma of Dallas is borne out in Barbara Leaming’s 2014 biography. The reporter and the priest are both based on real people, although the timing of those conversations is wrong (it was months later). Much of the Portman’s performance – the anger, the drinking, the desire to die, the determination to bury JFK in a way that evoked Lincoln – seems close to accounts left by those who were there. I would say it as a credible portrait of a woman suffering the kind of trauma that few can imagine – and yet that is the job of the film, to do the imagining.

In the end, Larrain delivers a powerful film that returns some sense of privacy to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. That’s an odd thing to say about a biographical film that uncovers so much, but what it shows is that we didn’t know the half of what she went through, nor much about the strength that got her through it.