|'By tackling his subject at a low ebb, Larraín forces himself to ask new questions and find new answers. In doing so he produces a film that muses on big themes and subjects; our ability to know ourselves, grief, legacy and mortality.'|
You could easily argue that the approach director Pablo Larraín takes in Jackie is a tad unfair. Whilst other Biopic subjects get their moment of glory depicted on screen, here Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) gets what you presume were the worst weeks of her life. This is a film about a notable first lady and yet Larraín's decision to focus on this period guarantees that much of her life and work is ignored. Jackie only concerns itself with Mrs Kennedy's reaction to her husband's assassination.
That choice, though potentially a problem for some, is precisely why Jackie works and why several critics have described it as 'unconventional' and unlike your standard Biopic. By tackling his subject at a low ebb, Larraín forces himself to ask new questions and find new answers. In doing so he produces a film that muses on big themes and subjects; our ability to know ourselves, grief, legacy and mortality.
Those ideas are perhaps most fully realised in the scenes that make up the framing device; a conversation between Jackie and an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup). These scenes not only anchor the story (Jackie is giving her first interview, some weeks after JFK's death), but can also be read as the battle between storyteller and subject; director and story. Jackie and the reporter often talk at cross purposes. Crudup often says the wrong thing, stumbling through questions. At the beginning of their meeting, Jackie tells him that she will vet the story: this will be 'her version' of what happened, a description that works on many levels. The scenes work without reservation. Crudup understands his supporting place and Portman shines. Larraín gets what he was after: an uncertain probing of someone that we cannot hope to know in one-hundred minutes (yes, this is also unconventional in Biopic terms due to its merciful brevity).
Larraín does all this with an unsentimental air towards Jackie and her husband, though by the end this has perhaps thawed a little. Jackie is arguably a difficult, spiky character for much of the film, particularly in her conversations with the journalist but then, why shouldn't she be? Though the director is unsentimental, that doesn't mean that there is no room for tenderness or sympathy. You can though explore those feelings in ways other than melodrama; a genre this is about as far away from as it could ever hope to get.
The bravura scene in the film, Jackie's choosing of JFK's burial plot in Arlington, doesn't depict pristine white gravestones in neat rows. The location is shot on a wet, misty morning; stains rub the stones and Jackie finishes it with mud covering her famously pristine fashion choice. She is on a mission of exploration, not a journey of reverence. 'It cannot be a normal plot', she exclaims, as she sets out. The internal fears around legacy are externalised and turned into a wading traipse through the graveyard. There's irony too, come the finale. For all Jackie's battles throughout the film to secure the legacy of her husband, what will she be remembered for? Her moment of realisation could perhaps be considered a touch tragic, but Portman plays it as though the character has few regrets. The character says at one point that she has been selfish, but that scene suggests that she has never paused to consider how she will be remembered, only her husband.
The sole scenes where Larraín's exploration goes awry are in the conversations between Jackie and another unnamed character: the priest (John Hurt). Whilst the story's big themes are kept as subtext for the most part, here they become text. Noah Oppenheim's script forgets its naturalistic care and goes all explicit. The priest even gets to a point where he tells Jackie a parable and then bothers to explain that the parable relates directly to her. The scenes feel like bad Terrence Malick and Larraín seems to know it. His cuts become sudden and non sequitur and the tempo of the film is lost for a moment.
It only ever disappears in these sections though. For the whole this is simultaneously controlled and free-wheeling. In accepting that he has no hope of finding the 'true' Jackie, Larraín frees himself to investigate why that might be and postulate as to how close he can get. Perhaps he doesn't get anywhere near. But when your film is this successful at examining such large ideas in such a sophisticated way, does it matter that much?
Jackie is released in UK cinemas on Friday 20th January.