If Casey Affleck gave us a study of grief delayed and contained over the years in Manchester by the Sea, in Jackie Natalie Portman delivers a superb performance conveying the depths of shock and trauma caused by loss in its immediate aftermath. As the titular wife of JFK, Portman riddles Jackie with a sense of conflict and anxiety as we watch a strong woman scrambling to maintain a sense of order in her darkest moments.
Jackie Kennedy is the central figure of the film, but the assassination of her husband is necessarily the central moment, and it is one which the film confronts immediately, showing us Jackie and her dead husband speeding along a deserted closed highway in the aftermath of the shooting. The film returns to this sequence repeatedly, with Mica Levi’s superb score droning and sliding us into the same uneasy and fraught frame of mind as Jackie herself inhabits.
Framed by journalist Billy Crudup’s interview with the ex-First Lady after the fact, as well as by careful use of a television documentary Jackie had filmed shortly after her arrival in the White House, the film walks us through the mania of the days that followed JFK’s death, for the people most closely connected to the event. Jackie veers from rigid self-control to moments of despair, and is obsessed by the idea that her husband should be conferred the highest honours possible in his funeral arrangements. She wants his funeral to match that of Lincoln in every way.
Alexander Skarsgård provides able support as a similarly wavering Bobby Kennedy – agreeing that Jack was a great man, but clearly yearning for the whole affair to be dignified and, more to the point, over soon. He and Jackie support each other but also grate on each other, and the manner in which they both visibly teeter near the edge of control is a credit to the actors. The main portion of the film follows this progress of arrangements being made, and of consequences being explored – the handover of the presidential title and power, the breaking of the news to the Kennedy children and the physical matter of washing the blood from hands and body.
However, just as one starts to doubt the morality Jackie is occupying – just as she begins to edge towards the sinister in her insistence on her husband’s legacy, and her seemingly coy answers to Crudup’s question, the film delivers a masterstroke, in a sudden and crushing return to the assassination. WIth a sound mix now focussing more on the harsh details, a camera far less willing to ignore the brutal facts of the situation, and Levi’s score at its most pressing, we are reminded forcibly of just what Jackie endured. This was no quiet death, there was no privacy, or respite, and any behavioural oddities do not make her a manipulator or puppetress. This is grief, pure and simple – a woman with the prime of her life ripped from her, attempting to maintain control over whichever elements she feels she can manage.
Portman ensures that it is always difficult to tell when Jackie is being honest in conversation, whether confessing deep-seated woes to the late John Hurt’s kindly priest or insisting that she holds nothing against the now presidential Johnson family, and as the film elapses we progress from pity to suspicion and then back to crushing pity. This feels as though it were surely precisely the aim of those involved.