She stares into the tiny mirror of the Air Force One bathroom, adjusting her pink pillbox hat and equally pink, double-breasted knockoff Chanel suit – a vision of carefully calculated grace, and a template for all First Ladies to follow. It is Nov. 22, 1963, and her husband's presidential motorcade is about to make the journey into Dallas.
This is how we find Jacqueline Kennedy in the opening moments of Jackie, the remarkable new drama from Chilean director Pablo Larrain. And this, too, is how we find Natalie Portman, whose starring turn in the film so frequently blurs the line between performance and total persona, between a shadow game and a fully realized resurrection of history.
Since the end of Camelot, actresses of all stripes have attempted to solve the unique private-public enigma that is Jacqueline Kennedy. Jeanne Tripplehorn. Ginnifer Goodwin. Jaclyn Smith. Minka Kelly. Katie Holmes. Jacqueline Bisset, twice (first as a barely fictionalized character in the 1978 film The Greek Tycoon, then 25 years later in the television movie America's Prince). But it is Portman who has finally delivered the one true portrayal of Jackie – wife, mother, mourner and mystery.
To watch Portman's every move is to not only watch history being recreated, but to also witness history being made. No one will ever be able to touch this role again. Or, at least, no one should.
Portman's work relies partly on a sum-of-its-parts equation. Her voice adopts Jackie's intimidating Mid-Atlantic accent, all twang and front-of-mouth crispness that just threatens to crack every single word. Her posture reflects a person perpetually teetering between poise and panic. Her hair, her makeup, her wardrobe, her perfectly wide and thick eyebrows – it all adds up to a vision of Jackie that's hypnotizing. But, mostly, Portman's work rests in her eyes. Steely, direct, punishing and piercing, Portman's performance lives and dies in her stares. The actor disappears, replaced entirely by someone else – someone who was also an expert at playing a part for the American stage. The final effect is as if watching a performance concocted in a hall of mirrors – and presents as difficult and true an act of transformation as you're likely to encounter on screen.
If Jackie, the film, floated only on Portman's rendition as Jackie, the person, than that would be enough. But instead, Larrain (The Club, No, Neruda) uses his star's towering talent to paint an epic, all-consuming portrait of grief – an extraordinary, lacerating submersion into the darkest corners of a person's life that is both relatable and alluringly unknowable.
Mercifully, this is no mere biopic. We never learn about Jackie's upbringing or her family history of her courtship with Jack. We never flash-forward to her later years, with someone thinking it was a good idea to cake Portman with old-age makeup and pretend it looked all very natural. In Jackie, we only witness the woman just before or just after the death of her husband. By constantly shifting the narrative between her life pre- and post-assassination, Larrain builds up the dream of Camelot before tearing it down, over and over again. There's Jackie dancing with Jack in the White House. And then there's Jackie in the shower, washing off the blood of her husband. It's a devastating technique, one that only as brave and uncompromising a director as Larrain would employ.
All the while, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine inches closer and closer to Portman's face, waiting for Jackie's inner agony to slip into public view. Composer Mica Levi's score creeps just as slowly, all funereal strings and distant horns, soundtracking the narrative with a perpetual state of unease – when not interrupted by snippets from Richard Burton's Broadway recording of Camelot, an intentionally rude and jarring decision on Larrain's part.
Just as devastating, though, is the director's decision to feature Jackie in every single scene – there is barely a frame absent her presence. Supporting players such as Peter Sarsgaard (as Bobby Kennedy), John Hurt (a thoughtful priest), Greta Gerwig (a White House aide) and Billy Crudup (a stand-in for Life magazine reporter Theodore White) slide into the margins, but this is entirely Jackie's story, as it should be. Grief, it can be argued, never leaves you – and so a film about such pain should similarly never try to shake its central mourner.
At one point in the film, Jackie wonders aloud, "I lost track somewhere of what was real and what was performance." After watching the bold, transfixing work of both Portman and Larrain, you will no doubt be left wondering the same thing.