Hardly a grizzled old soul at the age of thirty-five, Natalie Portman has nonetheless been working in film long enough — over twenty years — to have distinctive phases of her career. Without being precise about the timing of each shift (though I certainly could for anyone foolhardy and masochistic enough to ask me to), I’d say she’s already gone from child actor to precocious ingenue to adult actor. Presumptive as it might be to make too bold a declaration on the basis of a single performance, the new film Jackie could very mark the beginning of a convincing transformation into a skilled character actress.
Much of Portman’s career has been defined by roles in which she seems to be opening parts of herself up, but in playing Jackie Kennedy the actress buries her well-known traits and appealing flares of personality into a complete different person, unlocking a familiar figure in the process. Jackie largely confines its examination of the title character to the tumultuous time surrounding the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). Portman adopts the breathy precision of Jackie Kennedy’s speaking voice, using it a signal of the character’s caution, but also a deceptive measure of her inner fortitude. Every move and gesture is a purposeful choice, the necessary defense for a life lived in the harshest of spotlights.
It’s Portman’s challenge to get at an inner being when the prominent bearing of her character is a firm guardedness. The shape of the performance is further complicated by the storytelling methodology employed by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín. They crack the narrative into large shards and move the pieces around like seers trying out different patterns in an attempt to make the secrets of universe shimmer into sight. Portman does well with every task she’s given, but too often the scenes don’t allow room for nuance or multifaceted reaction. Here Jackie is nervous, here she’s anguished, and here she’s defiant. Portman fares better in the two passages that essentially serve as dueling framing sequences, one an interview with a slightly skeptical journalist (Billy Crudup, doing able work) and the other a walking conversation with a Irish priest (John Hurt, wonderful, of course). Unlike the more hit-and-run feel of other material, these exchanges give Portman the room to find conflicts and shading within the role. The two-handers are strong enough that I almost longed for a far more stripped down version of the film. My Dinner with Jackie, if you will.
The one aspect that pulled me back from fully indulging in that wish is the striking visuals conjured up by Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine. Burdened with history that’s been branded into the public consciousness, the filmmakers deliver imagery that startles with its elegant invention without compromising a useful fidelity to the past. In particular, the dreadful day in Dallas is shot with such poise and urgency that it makes one of the most exhaustively scrutinized incidents in the nation’s long saga into a moment of uncommon immediacy.
Jackie is imperfect yet fascinating, its flaws and ambitions snarling together into a knot as tight as a diamond. Perhaps that contradiction suits its subject. It undoubtedly helps offer Portman a fresh pathway in her travels as an actress. That she responds with such assurance is itself enough to make some of the film’s flaws strike the eye, mind, and memory as less problematic than they might otherwise.