Intentionally, something always feels slightly off throughout Jackie. Natalie Portman’s performance is also a performance. Mica Levi’s score is unsettling and disorientating. A time of great stress jumps between being intimately devastating and simply another part of the job. A biography this may be, but it is much more artistic than it first appears.
Centred around an interview after the death of her husband, Jackie follows the events from JFK’s assassination through to his burial. In that time, Jackie herself must make funeral arrangements, look after their children, and prepare to relocate, while also commanding the final moments she and her husband will have to build a legacy. Her agency dithers as she is the most powerful widow in the world surrounded by people who assure her they know better.
Mica Levi’s score really emphasises how important music’s role is in setting the mood. Menacing glissandos and atonal chords eschew any ideas you might have about the soundtrack to a biopic, instead drawing inspiration from the real life horror of the situation at hand. It is comparable to another film Levi scored, Under the Skin, in that it is essential the feeling of control slipping away is always present. Without Levi, Jackie would not succeed on the level it does.
The other key component is Natalie Portman. While she may be losing Oscar buzz, it is totally unique in its category for being a performance that is a performance. Whether it is the familial Jackie who is both relaxed and witty, or the figure the world saw who was soft spoken and graceful, everything is calculated. Jackie was aware of the absurdity of her situation – she was a president’s wife – and knew it led to a type of unreality.
When she confesses dark compulsions to a priest it is genuinely shocking because it is one of the few moments she appears to let that mask down. She controls the interview, takes charge of proceedings immediately after her husband’s death, and dominates how she and her family will be presented to the world. Underneath all of that is still a humanity that has carried a great weight for so long, that of being such an important public figure. At first Portman’s portrayal is jarring, but how controlled and deliberate it is leads to an understanding of the person Jackie was.
Despite allowing us insight into a domestic tragedy, the film avoids becoming voyeuristic. This may be down to Jackie’s actions, never looking for sympathy but what is right for her family, the role of president, and the country as a whole. What could have been a biography of sorrow is remembered more for the skillful actions to ensure a legacy. Portman never lets Jackie feel cold, but rather someone who is always thinking big picture and long-term, and always desperately proud of what she and her husband have and could have achieved.
Its deliberately unpredictable tone throws into doubt how faithful the film is to history, but it makes a strong case for Jackie Kennedy being the reason we think so highly of JFK today. It is a celebration of life at a time of death, not solely focused on love but certainly driven by it. It takes a number of risks, all of which pay off, making Jackie highly deserving of the praise.