Thursday 2 February 2017
Directed by Pablo Larraín
UK cinema release print.
My primary reason for wanting to see this new... I hesitate to call it biopic due to the timeframe... this new film about Jackie Kennedy in the week following the assassination of her husband is an old one which will possibly be a little familiar to some of my regular readers. Yeah, that’s right. I was there to hear the score. I loved Mica Levi’s compositions for Under The Skin (reviewed here) and I really wanted to know how her musical style would manifest itself and develop when writing a work for a more ‘real world’, grounded piece of art.
As it happens, I couldn’t see the film on the Saturday that I wanted to because, it transpires, even though this film has received various award nominations (including oscar noms), my local, 15 screen cinema deigned the film unfit for viewing at the weekend and, instead, decided to only show it on week days. Seriously Cineworld Enfield? So I went and saw it on the Tuesday night and, it has to be said, the audience was tiny. I could only think how packed out it might have been if it had been allowed to play on the weekend.
So, anyway, Jackie stars Natalie Portman as the aforementioned ex-Mrs. K, Jacqueline Kennedy, and it’s a performance which has to be seen to be believed. It’s an intense study and, not to downplay director Larrain’s excellent choices in terms of how he captures the various performances, Portman just pulls it right out of the bag and inhabits the character in ways that will make you even feel a little uncomfortably voyeuristic as you watch this woman interacting with the world around her at the height of her emotional grief. And she’s paired with some pretty amazing actors throughout, too.
The film is set in various different time frames from which the director cuts back and forth but all of these, strangely, apart from two sets of sequences being revisited throughout, are all from between JFK getting killed up to when Jackie is interviewed by a reporter a week later, after her husband has been buried. The film uses the reporter as bookends to the film but also a series of points to go to and from throughout the course of the narrative, as both he and the audience struggle to capture the essence of the turmoil she was going through.
One of the two major sequences which the director uses as a counterpoint to the misery of the main body of the film is a TV show about the Whitehouse which Mrs. Kennedy had starred in about a year or so before. This is something which, along with shots of the spectacular funeral she insisted on for her husband, is woven seamlessly into existing newsreel footage with the director going back to the same cameras used for the TV programme in order to splice Portman’s truly electrifying performance into context. In some ways, the constant flashes forward and back are a reminder of the kind of cinema wonderfully perpetrated by Nicolas Roeg although, whereas Mr. Roeg’s movies seem to deliberately use the technique in a brutal, bludgeonly manner to push a point or metaphor, Larrain has chosen far more subtle and seamless entry points in the execution of his reveals... and somehow he manages to get away with it pretty well, keying off relevant emotional peaks and troughs to introduce these excursions through time.
There’s a lot of hand held camera in this thing too... it’s mostly hand held, actually, and this adds to the sense of ‘fly on the wall’ documentary style of shooting... following the character around and catching things on the sly as Jackie tries to survive the death of her husband. It’s a method a lot of modern film-makers are adopting just lately, actually, and I first became aware of it, as I believe I’ve highlighted before, on TV shows like Firefly and the recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. In as much as the camera is being used to look at things and just ‘notice’ things rather than pre-empt the emphasis of a scene by dollying up to something in an ‘establishing shot’ mode... although there are a couple of moments when that kind of hypnotic style of shooting is also employed here.
And I don’t think there’s a single scene in this movie without Natalie Portman in it. Everything is seen with her as the main focal point and she does, as I’ve already said, an absolutely terrific job in carrying the film. Bearing in mind she’s going toe to toe with some great actors in this... none of them doing a bad job. Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, Billy Crudup as the unnamed (in the movie) journalist and, especially, Peter Sarsgaard doing a terrific Bobby Kennedy... all absolutely marvellous but none of these giants any greater than Portman. It was sad, given his recent demise, but heartwarming to see acting legend John Hurt here, too, in a role which pitches him head to head with the title character and, frankly, Portman more than holds her own against this thespian giant, really proving to me that the actress who I first saw as a little girl/assassin in Leon, all those years ago, has gone from playing naively political royalty in the Star Wars movies to the equivalent political royalty of real life America 1963... and never given a bad performance... at least not any I’ve seen.
The presence she brings to the role here absolutely works with Larraín’s movie to provide an intense glimpse into one week of the life of an iconic public figure and this is beautifully accompanied by Mica Levi’s astonishing music. If accompany is the right word for a score this powerful, which gives me a little more of a clue into Levi’s stylistic tendencies, such as the use of powerful sliding note changes to, in this case, give a picture into the mental landscape of the title character as she pushes back against the absolute chaos and loss of control she must be feeling... as personified by the musical outbursts. You can bet this one was an instant purchase on CD for me (should be with me sometime next week) and I’ll be really upset if the score gets beaten by La La Land (reviewed here) at this year’s Oscars. It’s quite possibly the best score that 2017 (yeah, we get things late, sometimes, in the UK) is going to throw at me and the only score I can imagine equalling or surpassing this one may be Johnny Williams’ score for The Last Jedi when it comes out at the end of the year. But you never know... there have been some phenomenally good scores (some unreleased in an appropriate format) over the last half a decade.
Towards the end of the movie, Jackie Kennedy makes an observation to the journalist character interviewing her that the reason she has filled the White House with iconic, period pieces from prior residents or treasures authentic to the various periods of people in office, is because of the importance of history and being able to see and touch it. Artefacts are important because people can handle them and know the people who have previously handled these objects have faced adversity and had the courage to stand up to it... for example. Now, this really sparked something with me. The idea of the importance of material objects elevated by their associations is long something I have held in my heart but it also struck me as something very important to the format of the story too.
Here we have a movie which is, in itself, an artefact and, also, contains some footage, albeit morphed into a fictional content, from the actual time that these events were taking place (the White House TV show, the funeral parade). This film, like all others, will have meaning for future generations of viewers and the people who play the parts of the characters will be remembered through their work in these cinematic objects. Even as I was watching this on my first viewing, for example, I was remembering John Hurt and the body of his work leading up to this. I suspect that Jackie’s words here are something which may resonate with the director because films, in many different ways, are memory boxes filled with treasures for future generations who haven’t even been conceived yet. These are the ways, for better or worse, that our culture and era will be remembered. It’s not exactly an accurate legacy but it’s always going to contain, at the very least, the tone and idea of the truth of the culture that created it. So that’s something to remember in the quiet hours of the night when you’re next contemplating a movie, methinks.
Jackie is in cinemas now and, despite being nominated for the Oscars (I don’t subscribe to the idea of awards ceremonies), it’s a truly great little movie and deserves the attention of people who love the medium for what it is... the spectacle of life. Definitely worth seeing at the cinema and if you’re into music, definitely worth it for the score.