“No, because I never said that.”
Once upon a time, there lived a world where “gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done… and when the barbarians beyond the walls were held back.” Fables, history, legends all tell us that worlds like this all succumb to the same fate. It is only in the annals of history and the words on the page where these worlds can live on.
When Jackie Kennedy sat down with Life magazine journalist Theodore White on November 29 1963, a legend was set in stone. That legend was of Camelot, an American idyll where the White House was a place of glamour, a place where the nation could look to for inspiration and with pride. Everyone loves “to believe in fairytales”, but people also love to debunk myths.
Jackie takes Kennedy’s interview as its spine, imagining how the conversation between a grieving widow and a journalist happy to “settle for a story that’s believable” would have panned out. Long has the shine been rubbed off the realm of Camelot; JFK’s drug habits, suspected infidelity and mafia links casting a shadow over the consummate performer. Yet, it is with Noah Oppenheim’s change of focus to the First Lady, that we see how the legend was formed.
Though Jackie is most certainly a heartfelt embrace of the pain and bewilderment felt by a wife after losing her husband, it is also a look across the motivations of a woman desperate not to let her husband be forgotten. She feels almost Lady MacBethian in her organization, from the elaborate funeral she painstakingly arranges to the furniture she collects around their temporary home. Her every step is self-choreographed. She is trying to keep her husband alive through collective remembrance, but every time her eyes scream “My husband was a great man”, the film flickers with the memory of his actual shortcomings.
Through Natalie Portman’s wonderfully measured performance, a true picture of a grieving widow’s pain is felt. True, honest sympathy is drawn out, despite the illusions overhead. Tears burn down her face, sweeping away Kennedy’s cosmetic barrier, revealing a scared, vulnerable human, left alone and out of her depth. Portman’s take on Kennedy’s dignified tone, matched with Pablo Larraín’s squeezed camerawork, leaves you a passenger semi-straining to overhear hushed whispers between those we will never be near.
The balance of choreography and disruption may be led by Portman but it is illuminated by Madeline Fontaine’s immaculate costumes and framed by Mica Levi’s regal score. Jackie Kennedy was one of the most famous women of the 20th century and inspired a generation of style, as shown by the rows of shop mannequins she passes made in her likeness in the film, and it is only through Portman’s strength, Fontaine’s eye and Levi’s dexterity that we feel her true weight.
Elsewhere in the film, such weight can be lacking. The murder hits hard, offering much visually, raising your heartbeat in pace with Kennedy’s. Yet, as she walks alongside her husband’s body, veil shielding like a somber suit of armour, the scene fails to overwhelm, failing to take hold of my lungs as I expected. This may be anticipated; the scene favouring the elaborate surface beauty of the funeral over any tenderness, just as Kennedy herself favored the “spectacle”. The scene lacks the heart and gravitas as it feels the funeral itself lacked both qualities too, but whilst this is an enlightened peek behind the portcullis, it fails to produce the most incisive or affecting of sequences.
Jackie is profoundly moving, considering a national tragedy through the person who felt it most personally, but it is also deft, intelligent storytelling. Taking us from a smoke-filled living room to the fateful day, via grainy scripted recreations, weaves a pattern of performance, pleasure, pain and regret.
With a single act, a single decision, Lee Harvey Oswald toppled a dynasty-in-the-making, but through his actions, and those of a widow “who should have been a shopgirl”, that empire will live on forever.
Images courtesy of blogbusters and tom and Lorenzo respectively.