“I’m not the First Lady anymore,” says Natalie Portman as she plays Jackie Kennedy to perfection in a film detailing the week following the assasination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. The film is narrated through a journalist’s interview with Jackie as she recounts her life with and without JFK, and is told in a series of non-linear flashbacks, each one revealing more intimate details about her life than the last.
Portman looks beautiful but frail and looks surprisingly like Kennedy from some angles, especially from side on, and plays her to a tee, channeling her mannerisms and Jackie’s distinctive accent. She flows effortlessly from steely determination to bereft despair and even moments of horror as she remembers trying to hold her husband’s head together in the car and as she washes the blood splatters off her face as she sobs in the mirror on Air Force One. But despite her physical and emotional fragility, she plays a woman emitting strength as she demands respect for her husband in the form of a state funeral to rival President Lincoln’s.
When riding in the ambulance with her beloved Jack’s body and her brother-in-law Bobby (played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard) she asks the driver and the nurse, do you know who James Garfield was? Do you know William McKinley? What did he do? Neither knew, but Jackie did: they were presidents who were assassinated in office. She asks the same of Abraham Lincoln and of course they know the answer. She wants her husband to have a legacy, to be remembered and respected like Lincoln.
And so she sets about organising his burial and funeral, whilst mourning and battling her grief as she berates herself for being a bad mother, bad wife and bad First Lady – contrary to the opinion of many. She is wonderful with her children in a heartbreaking scene where she tells them that their father won’t be coming home. At this point she reveals that she has suffered loss in the family before, when her son Patrick died at just two days’ old. She tells the children that Daddy has gone to see Patrick in Heaven. She also lost her daughter Arabella at birth, so her life was not without grief up to this point.
Portman portrays Kennedy with poise in a part she seemed born to play. In a film produced by Darren Araonofsky, who previously worked with her on her Oscar-winning Black Swan, you wonder if this film is just a vehicle for her to scoop more awards. But in fact the entire film is moving and insightful, and Portman is at the heart of it.
There are flashbacks to when Jackie presented a televised tour of the White House where director Pablo Larrain cleverly splices together real footage from the television show with shots of Portman, adding a grey grainy filter to the screen and crackly overlay to the sound, you wonder if it’s actually Portman speaking or Jackie herself, especially when JFK makes an appearance and everything fits seamlessly together.
Jackie spent time and money redecorating the White House before filming the documentary, allowing a glimpse into some parts of the building that had never been seen by the public before. She took great pride in the history of the building and buying old artfacts that belonged to pervious Presidents, particularly Lincoln. You can tell she has a certain affinity with Mrs Lincoln as she tells the camera that Lincoln would question why she spent money on furniture and things to fill the house. But as she says to the reporter when she is accounting her story, “Things last much longer than people.”
You get a sense of guilt from her, that she felt she never really deserved her life as first Lady. When talking of the White House she says, “It’s not my house, I never lived there,” and later confides in the priest, an excellent turn from the now late John Hurt, “I never wanted to be famous, I just married a Kennedy.” But she takes it all in her stride as she tries her best to be the First Lady she thinks people wants. And she has a sense of duty to presidential history as she goes about restoring the White House, calling it ‘the people’s house’ to camera, buying up old antiques. And of course orchestrating this grand funeral for her beloved Jack, as she calls him, in Lincoln’s image.
The score is beautiful: emotive strings, rousing horns and mourning woodwind. The music really emphasises the distress and emotion portrayed on Portman’s face. And as well as having a near-perfect soundtrack, the wardrobe is spectacular. Madeline Fontaine deserves her Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design for her recreations of Jackie’s suits, including the red two-piece she wore in the televised tour of the White House used on the film posters, and the iconic pink boucle skirt suit and pill box hat with navy trimming she wore when her husband was shot as he sat next to her.
Portman faces tough competition in the Best Actress category this year, and has so far missed out at the Globes and the SAGs, but I think she deserves the Oscar. It is a stronger performance than Black Swan which wonher her last little gold man, and personally I think a more compelling watch than that of Emma Stone in La La Land who is the current favourite to win. The film itself is moving and insightful, if a little slow in the middle, but definitely worth a watch for Portman’s performance, the rousing score and the beautiful costumes.