Friday, December 23, 2016

"Jackie" Is An Effective Psychodrama Anchored By Natalie Portman's Performance


With Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larrain handles a genre that can easily veer towards tired formula: the biopic. For every Selma, there's an Iron Lady. While the film does focus on a portion of Jackie Kennedy's life and the infamous event the film depicts, at its core, it is a demonstration of personal trauma balanced with historical context.

Jackie is about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, and depicts the aftermath of the assassination of JFK. The film follows Jackie juggling her personal grief, her husband's legacy, her public image, her struggling faith, and her motherhood.

The film relies heavily on Natalie Portman's performance and she absolutely nails it. Through Portman's facial and body expressions, we get a glimpse of Jackie's reluctant celebrity, her steely anguish mixed with her teary vulnerability, and her neuroticism even as she is in control with her stillness. She'll even weave in those different layers together in one frame.While she nails the impersonation with the wig and the airy voice, the performance and the film itself are all her and she manages to top her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan.

Some of the other supporting performances are pretty solid. In particular, Greta Gerwig is a standout as Jackie's assistant Nancy who provides steady warmth when Jackie is on the verge of grand turmoil. Peter Sarsgaard is also pretty good as the rather stern Robert Kennedy as is the other supporting players like John Hurt as a priest Jackie makes confessions to and Billy Crudup who plays a journalist that interviews Jackie about her PTSD experience. But this is Portman's show through and through.

Another reason Portman's performance works is the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine. Anybody who has seen Rust and Bone knows that he knows how to let the camera focus on and relate to its performers. So Fontaine lets the camera linger on Portman so we can absorb the rampant emotions she is going through as well as how she relates to the other actors in the movie. It is also shot as if Jackie is walking through, and slowly awaking from, a nightmare. For example, the scenes we get of her dealing with the aftermath of the assassination are filmed rather hazily, demonstrating how Jackie is in her nightmare. But when she's talking with the journalist interviewing her, it looks as if she has slowly woken up.

Composer Mica Levi, who created the eerie score for Under The Skin, composes a similarly atmospheric score that aides the film's psychotic feel. One of my favorite sequences has to be the scene where Jackie and JFK are walking off the plane to the motorcade where he was assassinated. In that scene, the moody score looms over the sequence that takes place in daylight, making it seem as if the scene was done by the likes of Roman Polanski who is an absolute master of psycho-horror.

Jackie may not be a typical biopic yet it is all the better for it. How it breaks the mold is a demonstration of how innovative filmmaking can be. But with all its technical precision, at its core is a virtuoso performance by leading actress Natalie Portman.

Grade: A