Monday, 6 February 2017

Jackie review

I review Pablo Larrain's debut English-language feature: 'Jackie'. Hit the jump for more!

I'm not usually a fan of biography movies - simply for the reason that A) there's either no suspense 'cause you know what's going to happen, or B) they're lowkey boring 'cause lets be honest, genuinely exciting things happen to very few people - even people whom biographies are made about.

On the plane, that fateful day in 1963.
Not so with 'Jackie'. I know next to nothing about Jackie Kennedy herself, although of course I know about the assassination of JFK. What Pablo Larrain has endeavored to create here is something swirling, mysterious, and undefinable: as much a psychological thriller as a documentation of real events. For it follows Mrs. Kennedy from the moment she was drenched in her husbands brain matter, to the moment she led the funeral procession for him that was almost cancelled a dozen times.

The film, starring Natalie Portman in the titular role, is framed by two devices. Firstly, an interview with Life Magazine's Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup) post all of the mayhem; and secondly, a black-and white, more than slightly awkward 1962 TV special named A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F Kennedy which has been painstakingly recreated down to angular precision by Larrain. Around these, Jackie tries to grieve, put on a face for the media, look after her young children, overrule many issues with the funeral arrangements, and grapple with the loss of her entire identity, which up until now, had been the wife of a political figure.

Indeed, this leads to what turns out to be a very weird film indeed. Portman gives a distanced, hoarse, and permanently whispered performance in the lead - and, of course, we are constantly aware that she represents artifice. She looks, almost, as if permanently drugged up - although records show that she refused all sedatives around that time. She appears to drift hallucinogenically through the frame - not to mention back and forward in time from the TV special, to the interview, to the assassination, and through the aftermath as if a specter in time.

A glimpse into happier times.
Similarly, the camerawork is dazed - yet precise. Handheld shots make up the bulk (almost the entirety) of the action, floating through the White House, and being more than a little reminiscent of Kubrick's 'The Shining'. In fact, horror imagery is commonplace - with Jackie's blood-stained dress taking up the symmetrical center of the frame, leading to any number of intense close-ups. Yet, despite the turmoil of this approach, the results remain often perfectly symmetrical - connoting the calm exterior to Jackie's inner turmoil.

The main heft of the narrative follows the various arguments and switchbacks over funeral procedure - for the goal of achieving safety for all the mourners involved. However, there's also a sequence of stunning early set-pieces wherein Jackie is immediately requested to greet the press and be present for the swearing in of the new president, a mere few hours after the death of her husband. In these sequences, the audience is just about as confused as the first lady herself - and the shock over procedural issues continues. Indeed, the head of security (Corey Johnston), seems hellbent on holding a quiet, safe funeral - that would remove the need for a procession, given the danger of sniper attacks.

Yet Portman puts on a different face for every different situation. With the press, it's the valiant, grieving widow; but for the press who wish to interview and to pry - she's as cold as ice. This continues well into the future, with the Billy Cruddup interview sequences being filled with veiled threats - "You're not going to publish that, because I didn't say it". With her children, it's the stern but loving mother; and with the bureaucrats, it's the heavy handed and vicious bulldog - that will get what it wants no matter what. Inside however, is a different matter - and I don't believe we ever quite get to see that side of the character. Perhaps it lies in the famous 'Camelot' statement - a testament to idealizing a situation, as much as it may have been untrue.
Haunting, horror-like images.

A host of supporting characters bolster the central narrative - especially John Hurt's meditative and honest turn as an ageing priest. At the time, I had no idea it would prove to be his last/one of his last roles in the film world - but he plays it pitch perfect. Entirely honest, frank about matters of life and death, and a crucial spiritual adviser for Kennedy in her hour of need. Richard E. Grant puts in an impressive and colorful performance as William Walton; and Peter Sarsgaard is electric in the role of Robert Kennedy - who puts up considerable resistance to some of Jackie's core ideas.

Crucially, as well, Mica Levi's classical score is a thing of true wonder and beauty. Glissando strings slide up and down in the warped fashion seen in the trailer for 'The Handmaiden' (coming later this year). In the most surreal scenes, this lends the production the quality of a horror once more, or a high-concept psychological thriller; rendering the inner trauma of the central character accurately in audio.

John Hurt, in one of his excellent final roles.
At the end of the day, 'Jackie' is a strange, meditative film. Its fantastic central performance is flanked on both sides by an outstanding aesthetic, comprising of handheld camera and devastating images; and an insanely accomplished score - which slides through psychological octaves. A new, and brave foray into biography film-making.

'Jackie' gets 4 stars!

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