'Jackie' is an engrossing biopic of the first lady following her husband's murder

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy Photo by Stephanie Branchu/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

With its constant stream of yellow roses, motorcades, and well-wishers, Jackie is like a feature-length funeral procession. It’s also what attendees might describe as a beautiful service — the kind of ritualistic tribute that’s as much for the living as it is for the dead.

Pablo Larraín’s engrossing biopic follows the former first lady (Natalie Portman) in the immediate wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, taking place over the course of a week and moving about in achronological order as if to give the impression of a memory or dream. Just as the show must go on, so must the government — meaning Jackie has no choice but to stand by as LBJ is sworn in as president, her face and that (in)famous pink dress still red with her husband’s blood.

And just as JFK was the first TV president, Jackie was the first TV first lady. We see frequent cutaways to her 1961 tour of the White House, complete with behind-the-scenes direction from her aide and friend (Greta Gerwig).

Jackie is always playing one role or another, most of them of someone else’s devising, and being forced into them wears away at her sense of self. Late in the film, we watch as she drives by a truck unloading mannequins dressed like her into a store. Her look is one of bemusement, but not surprise.

Portman’s performance so matches this Stepford First Lady vibe that it could almost be mistaken for stilted. Jackie spoke in an accent all her own, bringing to mind both her Long Island roots and the Hollywood stars of yore, and though Portman’s portrayal is soft-spoken, her strange cadence keeps us hanging on every word.

Larraín is ultimately more concerned with its grief-stricken heroine’s mental state than he is with the state of the union. The Chilean director occasionally circles back to an interview between Jackie and journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) as an anchor. Only here does she feel comfortable being herself, so naturally most of what she tells him is off the record.

Though selections from the musical Camelot — to hear Jackie tell it, a metaphor for his entire administration — serve a similar function, it’s Mica Levi’s haunting, dirge-like score that leaves the lasting impression. String-heavy and despondent, it’s the most dominant presence in the film not named Natalie Portman. There’s a sense throughout that Jackie wants nothing more than to scream; since she can’t, Levi’s music does it for her.

Portman is grief personified, the very image of mourning and a painful reminder that all politics is indeed personal. There’s never a moment to process any of what’s happened to her, and barely enough to follow the procedures meant to bring about a smooth transition from one head of state to the next.

“Nothing’s ever mine,” she says as she gathers her belongings and prepares to leave the White House. “Not to keep, anyway.”

She’s been forced at every turn to put on a good face for the sake of the millions watching at home — a gesture few were able to return.