How does one secure a legacy? The question has assumed renewed prominence in recent months, with a British Prime Minister resigning after severely misjudging the public mood, and a Democrat President ceding the White House to a successor representing who-knows-what. The Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s English-language debut Jackie (***, 100 mins, Cert: 15) approaches the matter from an unusual, oblique angle: its subject is Jacqueline Kennedy, witnessed in the long winter after the passing of her golden-boy husband, reflecting upon how she regathered herself to ensure the survival of an ideal.
Noah Oppenheim’s script structures itself around a (fictional) conversation between the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) dispatched to her Massachusetts retreat. This heart-to-heart, conducted over one afternoon, cues irregular cutaways to key Kennedy moments: the houseproud Jackie of a 1962 TV special forms a morbid rhyme with the newly-made widow palming blood from her cheek. By picking up and over these vivid pieces, Jackie is seen to move on: each jagged flashback nudges her towards closure at the funeral procession, where she can present as the defiant face of Camelot.
Thus does Jackie mirror the arc of this director’s remarkable breakthrough trilogy – Tony Manero, Post Mortem, NO – which plumbed the Pinochet regime’s pungent depths before resurfacing somewhere close to hope. It’s heartening to witness Larrain’s established concerns being bolstered by a budget that permits a recreation of West Wing life, and his prowling camera makes Jackie feel far more alive than a museum piece like The Queen. Yet the film’s transitional moments prove oddly jumpy and sketchy: the restlessness that has seen Larrain complete three films (The Club, Neruda, this) in twelve months appears a mixed blessing here.
Curious-to-rash decisions prevail. Having Portman mouth the actual Jackie’s words in that ‘62 broadcast amplifies our sense of watching celebrity ventriloquism – and underlines how this performance relies on mannerisms: a raised eyebrow here, a downturned mouth there. The supporting players struggle to gain traction. While Peter Sarsgaard makes for one of the screen’s stronger Bobby Kennedys, and John Carroll Lynch a nicely bristling Lyndon Johnson, the cutaways clang with suddenly affordable faces (Richard E. Grant, John Hurt, kook-in-chief Greta Gerwig) who scarcely convince as Washington insiders.
Jackie merits points for swerving the usual biopic beats: it signals its wilful eccentricity from the first swooping violin of composer Mica Levi’s score. Yet it’s too hurried, and finally conventional in its underlying thesis, hurtling towards Crudup’s fawning farewell to his host: “People will remember your dignity, your majesty.” Ah, we go, gathering our coats – so that’s all we’re meant to take away. Hollywood may yet become stronger for absorbing Larrain’s historical nous and cinematic virtuosity – but this cursory first foray into American politics risks a plummeting approval rating.
Jackie opens in selected cinemas from today.