Jackie Kennedy Onassis (née Bouvier) was America’s answer to the Queen. In my limited knowledge, she was bold and beautiful and well educated. She faced a harsh and critical public with poise and grace. She had the most impeccable wardrobe. And as I watched the trailer for Jackie, I sat and gawked in awe. I had to hold myself back from shouting “YAASS QUEEN!” in the cinema.
Jackie is a film that explores the life of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, for the most part in the aftermath of the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy. Although the film is directed by Pablo Larraín (Neruda), we see the clear guidance of producer Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant, The Maze Runner) as Kennedy is portrayed with dual personas. In the public eye, she is the sweet debutante; but off the record, she is feisty and steadfast.
This was Larraín’s first time directing a biopic about a woman. And he said himself in an interview with Variety, that he didn’t “have any particular attachment to that history”. Unfortunately, this is glaringly obvious in the film. Kennedy is an interesting character, no doubt, but the film explores only one aspect of her identity; as First Lady and mother to John Kennedy’s children. The film totally ignores her family history, her education, her passions and interests and wider life. Even though it is impossible not to feel sad when you see her grief on screen, it is difficult to really empathize with someone you know very little about.
There were many parts of the film which were clearly distressing. The sheer trauma of having your spouse murdered in front of your eyes is absolutely horrifying. The nonlinear structure of the film helps us to understand the utter anguish Kennedy must have been feeling. But I didn’t really feel it myself. The film spent a lot of time looking at Kennedy, letting us see her misery; but we didn’t really get a chance to slip into her skin – to really experience her sadness and anger. Instead, I felt an immutable sense of detachment.
I definitely commend the impeccable performance by Natalie Portman (Black Swan, V for Vendetta) as Kennedy herself. She fully committed herself to the role and did extensive research on Kennedy’s voice and physicality in preparation. Portman obviously has the advantage of bearing a striking resemblance to Kennedy however, her performance was absolutely convincing as she finessed even the finest details of Kennedy’s mannerisms – the regal way she holds her hands when she walks, or how a cigarette can dangle from her fingers. It won’t be long before we see an Oscar nomination rolling out for Portman in this role.
My comparison of Kennedy to British Royalty is no accident. In the film, Kennedy says “people like to believe in fairy tales”, as she compares her husband’s time in office to the mythical Camelot. We love to look up to our leaders and spin tales of grandeur. One can’t help but compare her legacy to that of Michelle Obama, and wonder what will come of the less celebrated Melania Trump. What stories do we tell of First Ladies? Jackie reminds us that under the harsh scrutiny of the public eye, we often forget that these ladies are people too.