At first blush, I was put off by Natalie Portman's Jackie Kennedy voice. It was distractingly studied. I encountered a similar snag with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden. Gordon-Levitt had so closely replicated his character's rasping, pinched delivery that a sort of dissonance was created: Snowden's voice didn't seem quite right coming out of Gordon-Levitt's body. Similarly, the First Lady's patrician delivery -- which still comes off humble and kind -- coming out of Natalie Portman didn't quite match.
But then I went to archival footage of Jackie -- a landmark 1961 tour of the White House, which is re-created in the film -- and found that dissonance present in the First Lady herself, her voice deliberate and staid, belying an undeniable geniality of presence.
The nuances of Jackie's accent turn out to be incredibly telling, in some ways key to understanding her character, and are employed both subtly and powerfully by Portman. Pablo Larrín's much-lauded film is very much concerned with public and private identity and the First Lady's refined public persona on display here came courtesy of Miss Potter's School. Her particular accent is the invented, affected mid-Atlantic, an indication not of place, but of status. It was the defining voice of the educated American Upper Class, but it was also the contrived voice of theatre and film of time. It's a voice that's essentially performative and surface.
One of the primary set pieces of Larrín's film finds Jackie visited by a reporter from Life just days after the assassination of her husband. Any moment during the interview in which she's candid or emotional she'll cap with an insistence that her words or disposition not be included in the article. Her true self is off the record. For instance, the profile can't even mention her smoking because -- she asserts, taking a drag -- of course she doesn't smoke. Or, follow up questions about one thing or another that she's said get ignored because, officially, she never said those things. These difference between what Jackie will say and what she'll allow to be published make for the most overt examples, in a film that is all about the subtle oscillation between one and the other, of the First Lady constantly balancing how she appears with how she is.
Jackie itself is as laconic and graceful as its subject, and the film's real power -- and this is the triumph of Portman's probably-award-winning performance -- comes when the public face slips and the real Jackie -- intelligent, proud, and at the time profoundly grief-stricken -- comes through. It can be difficult to pinpoint these moments, to tell when the First Lady is being fully, rawly herself. But it gets easier when you realize the poker player's tell that Portman and Larrín built into the performance. When Jackie drops the mid-Atlantic accent, letting the remnant of her New Yorker childhood come through, you're seeing the real her.
Jackie is an intimate and poetic tribute to a woman -- the onetime mother of the country -- whose legacy is so often withered by the pall of her husband and the attendant tragedy of his assassination. This is no bloated, bullet point biopic, but rather a concise and sensitive portrait, so fine-tuned that even the momentary slip of an accent is revelatory.