Since winning the Oscar for her performance as ballerina Nina Sayers in 2010’s Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s acting career has included the so-so No Strings Attached, the horribly misguided Your Highness, two Thor films, and last year’s blink-and-you-missed-it bomb Jane Got a Gun.
Apparently her six-year vacation is over, though, and she’s ready to get back to work. Real work. The kind of work that makes you realize the world needs more Natalie Portman in it.
I’m not sure when it happened, but very early in Jackie, the latest from director Pablo Larrain (Neruda), Portman stops playing dress-up as the former First Lady and instantly becomes the embodiment of one of the world’s most famous women. It’s a mesmerizing transformation that Portman accomplishes in spades, and, as with Black Swan, she makes it seem so effortless.
The backbone of the film is an interview Jackie grants to an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) at her Hyannis home a week after her husband’s assassination; it’s meant to echo the real-life interview she gave to Life reporter Theodore White (which she used as a launching point for the Camelot mystique). Portman portrays Jackie as a woman desperately trying to hold onto both her sanity and JFK’s legacy in the wake of what remains one of the 20th century’s most tragic moments. She goes from mournful to contemplative to almost hostile (and back again) over the course of the interview, giving the reporter behind-the curtain details while in the next breath snarling, “Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.” It’s a raw and utterly captivating series of moments by Portman, and what’s more, it’s believable, which makes it all the more poignant.
The film dances back and forth to various points in Jackie’s recent past, and though the recreation of assassination is the most disturbing and memorable, the most telling moments come during Larrain’s masterful re-do of the famous televised White House tour Jackie gave in February 1962. We watch as she walks us through the various rooms, pointing out both the history and the extensive renovations she ushered in upon her and her husband’s arrival. Interspersed among those flashbacks are further flashbacks giving us insight into the Kennedys’ White House life, including the memorable concert given by Pablo Casals.
While the narrative in the brilliant screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (who also wrote the film adaptations of The Maze Runner and Allegiant, oddly enough) is continuously jumping around, the story (and the film) as a whole works, not only due to Portman’s powerful, anchoring performance but also because of Larrain’s perfect execution and the noteworthy work of editor Sebastián Sepúlveda. Instead of a simple linear re-telling of the events, we’re let in on snippets of Jackie’s life as they become relevant to the story: a soul-baring conversation with a priest (the outstanding John Hurt), a heart-breaking glimpse of the conversation she has with John-John and Caroline when they ask when their daddy is coming home, and the very real and very human relationships she shares with Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). As lofty and above-it-all as Jackie may have been recorded in history, she is here presented as a vulnerable woman doing that she can to just survive.
Aided throughout by Mica Levi’s plaintive and unsettling score, Jackie both soars and brings this horrible chapter in American history down to Earth in the most vibrant way. It’s as gripping a film as we’ve seen in recent months–a beautifully-crafted masterwork made even more so by the long overdue return of one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses. Portman has never been better.