Jackie (2016)

Viewing Chilean director’s Pablo Larrain’s first English-language feature is not unlike viewing a political skit on the current edition of Saturday Night Live: a none-too-stellar ensemble surrounds an A-list star, with everyone made-up and costumed to suggest notable figures despite the fact no one on screen is capable of a satisfactory imitation of the people they are imitating. And while SNL keeps the viewer waiting for deep laughs to flow, viewers watching this film will be baffled at this rather curious retelling of a very familiar story.

The eponymous Jackie is no less a figure than Jacqueline Kennedy, the precedent-breaking First Lady of the early 1960s. The film opens at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a week after the assassination of the president. Mrs. Kennedy agrees to an interview with an unidentified journalist (Billy Crudup, looking excessively serious) but pointedly lays down the ground rules in very snippy terms: she has the right to edit the conversation and remove passages that are not to her liking.

From that starting point, the film intercuts between two defining moments in Mrs. Kennedy’s life: her 1962 televised tour of the White House, where she displayed the results and work-in-progress in the restorative efforts that she coordinated (and for which she received a surprising level of criticism), and the Dallas assassination and her efforts to choreograph the state funeral for her slain husband. The non-linear storytelling is not confusing, but the film leaves out huge gaps in a far more textured life.

If anything, Jackie is not a love letter to the First Lady: she comes across as prickly, bitter and struggling to maintain a sense of composure during extraordinary circumstances. She is not above reeling off sarcastic comments at those who displease her, and her demands for the state funeral – most notably her insistence that the world dignitaries walk behind the horse-drawn wagon carrying the president’s body – gives the impression of a woman driven by vanity and unwilling to let go of what little power she may have possessed.

In the title role, Natalie Portman bears no resemblance whatsoever to the subject, despite an ill-fitting wig, and her vocal imitation of the First Lady’s distinctive voice is barely satisfactory. To her credit, she mastered Mrs. Kennedy’s odd stiff-armed walk, and the film is not shy in depicting the First Lady’s unapologetic smoking habit. But in trying to channel the emotional complexity of this character, Portman falls back on excessive Acting 101 shtick that seems aimed for generating film awards rather than seriously trying to decipher the soul of a beloved figure.

Elsewhere in the cast, Peter Sarsgaard is supposed to be Robert F. Kennedy, but he never captures any aspect of his very difficult personality. Greta Gerwig plays one of Mrs. Kennedy’s loyal staffers, but she has nothing to do but stand around and look loyal. A ragged John Hurt turns up as a priest, complete with a Barry Fitzgerald-worthy brogue. A number of other actors turn up playing Kennedys, Johnsons and the various functionaries of the JFK years, but they mostly mill around while Portman chews the scenery.

Larrain’s direction is adequate, given the problems with the material and cast, but the real winner here is Madeline Fontaine’s costumes, which beautifully capture Mrs. Kennedy’s unique style. But unless you are going to a film to look at the clothing, Jackie can be avoided.