Historical figures always make good fodder for films. Our fascination with nostalgia, the emotions quaking beneath the surface of people we’ve only known about in books, magazines, and showreels, only deepens over time. As we move forward, we have one eye peering backwards as we are eager to capture the spirit of someone long gone on the big screen.
Pablo Larrain’s, whose work on The Club last year earned him critical acclaim, chose to tackle a big screen biopic with prominent First Lady: Jackie Onassis who was wed to President Kennedy and widowed after he was shot in Dallas. The film looks at her relationship with Kennedy, most prominently after his assassination as we delve into her perspective, her grief, and her motherhood.
There are, indeed, deep moments of visceral emotion in Larrain’s Jackie that shudder to your very core. Oscar-winning Portman, who completely had us enraptured with her psychotic performance in Black Swan, justly plunges into the depths of grief of Jackie, opposing her previous joy before her husband’s death with the desolation afterwards. Through Portman’s composition, you can also see the societal and political pressures that the titular character suffered from alongside her anguish at loosing her most treasured loved one. Portman is great in these moments, and ebbs with a great amount of pain.
Pablo Larrain directs a delectable film that’s composition is invigorating. The use of a pastel palette and soft tones embellishes the sublime period dress that coats the film. The director uses colour to tell the story: the riveting colours of Jackie during her term as First Lady contrasts the harsh black she wears in mourning. Larrain allows the character to express her loss of identity through her husband’s death following the famed tragedy. The story is also framed through different time periods of Jackie’s life, surrounding her stature as the First Lady. There’s her tackling with Billy Cudrup’s reporter, the tackling of the funeral and being ousted from the White House, as well as the frivolous life they led before the using it as a device to off-set different facets and feelings of the character. Let’s not forget, also, that Larrain courageously used footage from the time period in order to bring an authenticity to the proceedings.
It’s easy to recognise that all of these elements are good but there is an overall disconnect with the character and the film despite all the earnestness involved. While Portman may do sorrow well, the rest of the character is still very much surface. The imitation of Jackie’s accent is seemingly the sole focus of Portman’s performance with regular intervals of crying thrown in for good measure. There isn’t a rounded presentation of Jackie and there are a lot of moments where the character is dogged by a superficiality, or her love of the material, that neither the director or our leading actress can push past. The final product of Jackie is wholly underwhelming and shallow, leaving you aching for more.
While undoubtedly Portman will be nominated for her performance, it is a mediocre and rather safe portrayal of the First Lady. And whilst Pablo Larrain will be celebrated for his great use of archive footage with modern camera work, Jackie lacks substance it so desperately needed to succeed.