Toronto review: Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

The death of a loved one changes the fabric of one’s life; the death of an international hero changes the world. Looking back to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the United States’ thirty-fifth president, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie faces the daunting challenge of honouring a moment in history that is already permanently etched in the memories of those who lived to witness it, and the responsibility of illuminating a legend and legacy to the generations who could not experience the immediate and continuing tragedy firsthand.

Tackling such a monumental threshold in recent time is fraught with a likelihood of failure, especially if the approach is to attempt to state what is to be portrayed as definitive fact: the burden of evidence sets an impossibly high bar, especially when the nature of the study of history is so subjective to begin with. Conscious of this – and the film itself ponders the dichotomy between accepted representation of history and the difficulty of substantiating reality and truth – but not even close to a cop-out, Pablo Larrain humbly renders a portrait of a nation (that is not meant to be a manifestation of definitive history) in a whirlwind of impressions and possible memories by way of a single person, mounting a character study that reflects on a tightly focused interval in history.

While Jackie appears to be a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the aftermath of the death of her husband and her nation’s president (and it certainly is that as well), it reaches beyond the compulsory examination of an event, of a wife’s grief, and of a world’s great loss, and emerges to be so much wiser than it likely ever dreamed of being, never conclusively answering life’s impossible great questions, but suggesting some powerful considerations along the way.

Shot largely in sustained close-ups, Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy is in every scene of the film, if not every frame. Structured around intermittent beats in an interview with Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s funeral, Jackie draws upon its imagination of how the former first lady might have been feeling. In the clips from this interview, Jackie’s resilience, formidability, and nerve are portrayed with synthesis to her bitterness, fear, and grief. Jackie is aware of her (mostly self-imposed) obligation to protect, preserve, and project the importance of her husband’s legacy, but she is also unconsciously conscious of the potential of cementing her own.

But such a responsibility – not only to oneself, but to another as well – is even more daunting in reality than it would be in theory, especially if one is suddenly submerged in a confusing existential haze where the emergence of such an assurance seems impossible. Jackie’s close-ups, hypnotized by Portman’s limitlessly expressive face, tangibly channel as many of the possible emotions as a person could be experiencing, as they grapple with a flood of both immediate realizations and sudden doubts. Jackie, plagued by this torturous sensation, still has to find a way to explain to her children that their father will never return to them, and why this is, when she cannot even understand it all herself. Buried heartaches resurface: already having lost two of her children, Jackie wonders why God could be so cruel, taking away her husband, the father of her children, and the father to her country. As she struggles with these excruciating questions, Jackie discovers that peace is attainable with the realization and acceptance that there are no conclusive answers to life’s greatest mysteries.

Jackie is as close to being a portrait of the nature of the mind as is possible in a medium confined by its physical limitations, as it tries to express the intangible, as well as embody sensations. Thanks to Larrain and Portman’s towering, though unassuming, genius, they find clarity in what could be an opaque, ambiguous interpretation of a moment in history by making this moment a deeply personal, human one, limiting it to the gaze of one person’s experience and thoughts, as seen through their eyes.