“Nothing’s ever mine. Not to keep, anyway,” Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) remarks near the end of Jackie, but it’s not for lack of trying. Jackie depicts the iconic First Lady as someone constantly trying to keep her life stitched together in the face of pressure the likes of which most people can’t even imagine. There’s a lot that’s laudable about Larraín’s picture, but the element I’d like to focus on is Portman’s masterful performance in the title role.
Natalie Portman, I believe, is a perennially underrated actor, despite having won an Academy Award and having another nomination. She, like Keanu Reeves, has a reputation for looking like she’s not really doing anything special. But that’s really what makes her so good: she does great work without making it look like a breathless Herculean undertaking. Even in terrible films like Your Highness and No Strings Attached, she embodies her characters fully, prioritizing physicality and interiority over physical transformations. She adopts method acting techniques, but minus the arrogant showboating of many actors that have come to be associated with the label.
In another actor’s hands, Jackie might have been an utter disaster, full of opportunities to fall back on indicating every emotion, hiding behind that singular accent and hairdo; or, perhaps, glide by on movie-star charm and engaging only at surface level. Portman, on the other hand, seems to know that the best acting is rarely, if ever about what we, the audience, see. That might sound like a paradox, but look again at another widely lauded portrayal of a real woman released this year: Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins. Many found this film an utter delight; I found it a wretched miscalculation of tone and condescending to its audience.
Streep plays Jenkins (known for being an infamously terrible singer who insisted on performing demanding pieces despite her lack of technical skill) as alternately an utter buffoon and an inspiring figure who’s living proof that you should never give up on your dreams even if you don’t have the talent for them. In her performance, the notes are there (or, rather, aren’t), but she can’t help but consistently indicate for the camera how the audience is supposed to feel. There’s a consistent feeling that any moment she’ll wink at the camera and say aside “You may laugh/cry now.” It’s less a piece of acting than an emotional telegraph, and it’s everything Streep’s detractors have accused her of condensed into a single performance.
Portman, conversely, seems to be explicitly refusing to do such things. Her Jackie Kennedy is an enigma from the very first scene, where Jackie confronts Theodore H. White, a journalist interviewing her for Life magazine a mere week after her husband’s assassination. The prevailing image of Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s death was a cold one, mostly so that the public could hold up John F. Kennedy’s legacy despite his philandering and flaws. Portman seems to play into this somewhat at first, flattening and graveling Jackie’s voice into something notably removed from the girlish Mid-Atlantic tones we’re so familiar with, but at the same time, she projects an urgency, a need for closure with her husband’s memory that gives the film its emotional hook right off the bat. With a simple but intentionally jarring shift from wispily mourning the hands-off attitude the media had to her husband’s legacy to insisting that she’ll be calling the shots, she nails Kennedy’s need to maintain a positive public image, her fast-working mind, without giving the audience more than they need. It’s a smart choice supported by Noah Oppenheim’s script, and it characterizes her work throughout.
Portman’s best moments in the film often have her saying nothing at all. In the aftermath of John’s death, Jackie stands aboard Air Force One, flitting about, trying to figure out what to do for the funeral, for exiting the plane, for a hundred other things. When she’s eventually told that she should change out of her bloody sweater, she says “Let them see what they’ve done” defiantly, but quickly betrays her confident nature in the very next shot with a hazy stare as she realizes the weight of what just happened…or does she? Her eyes are unfocused, but not unthinking: her mouth looks just on the verge of letting the dam break, spilling her guts again. Portman knows this single moment is key, but she doesn’t milk it; she knows how to let the audience key in to her feelings. It’s a perfect microcosm of the film’s ethos: keeping you at arm’s length, but with an enigmatic smile.