In Their Skin: A Study of Natalie Portman’s Most Transformative Roles

Since the age of twelve Natalie Portman has been known for taking on deeply challenging, chameleonic, and often subversive roles. Her performances have only gotten more breathtaking as she has grown as both a person and an actress. She neatly unravels the minds and beings of each of her characters, to the point where she can seamlessly become them, slipping under their skin and clinging to their bones. Her incredible ability is the result of years of experience and dedication to honing her craft as well as what is simply raw talent. Portman’s presence as an actor is formidable, her skill is undeniable. She is intimidatingly intelligent in life and in the roles she chooses for herself—studying psychology at Harvard between shooting the Star Wars prequels is no easy task. 

At twelve years old, Portman nailed her first role in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional. She stunningly (but not surprisingly) outacts both Jean Reno and Gary Oldman in what is an amazing role to begin her film career. Her character Mathilda is the centre of the film, even though its title character is Léon. Mathilda motivates pretty much all of Léon’s actions, is the only true relationship he has, reveals his deepest character traits, and becomes his legacy. Somehow at twelve, Natalie Portman had the emotional intelligence and awareness to play this very intricate, complicated character with ease. A victim of her father’s abuse and a witness to more violence than any child should have to see, Mathilda turns up on Léon’s doorstep, and asks him to teach her how to be a ‘cleaner’ (read: hitman). She wants to take revenge on the men who killed her baby brother. Despite Léon’s protests, Mathilda stays and ends up being the closest friend Léon has ever had. In return, Léon is her protector and teacher, ultimately sacrificing himself for her. In Léon: The Professional, Portman’s most powerful tool is her line delivery. How and why Mathilda says things is what forms the emotional plane of the film. 

While Léon: The Professional was the first testament to her acting abilities, the role of Padmé Amidala is what truly launched her into the known sphere. My affection for the Star Wars prequels is almost entirely due to Natalie Portman’s involvement, and while the prequels received a lot of criticism, the one thing that seemed to work consistently was her Padmé Amidala. At fourteen, Portman gave life to a somewhat dull script and captured our attention as the young, poised queen of Naboo. In the following two sequels to The Phantom Menace, her Padmé is courageous, graceful, and something of a political genius — she’s also a senator now. One of the founders of the rebellion, Padmé has nothing short of a cool resolve and strong morals. She provides the political basis for the trilogy, and allows us to observe the political effects of the Jedi, Palpatine and Anakin’s various choices. Unfortunately, her character is a bit neglected by the scripts, so most of the job falls into Portman’s arms; It’s a good thing she already possesses the ability to construct characters and provide millions of dimensions to them. Padmé is objectively the best (and most well-rounded) character in the prequels, especially when she out-badasses both Obi-Wan and Anakin.  

Black Swan is the most delicious story about the descent into self-made madness. It is a harrowing, mind-melting, ingenious psychological thriller about artistic obsession, starving for perfection, and complete self-destruction. Also, Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina Sayers is one of the most eviscerating bouts of acting in existence. Black Swan is rich with brilliant acting moments and Portman executes them all flawlessly. This is one of her most physical roles for two reasons. The first, and more obvious, is that it is a film about ballet, in which she has to actually perform using the whole of her body (of course, she had a dance double, but that doesn’t negate the fact that dance makes this performance unique). The second reason is that Nina’s madness is a kind of bodily madness, and Black Swan is chock full of body horror. So, there’s the performance in her eyes and her face, the performance in her voice, and the performance that ricochets throughout her entire body. Portman dances around the void of insanity with all the practised ability of an unequivocally talented actress. Nina Sayers is a young, beautiful, and vulnerable ballerina, who craves the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. For the most part, Nina has kept her mental illness under control (mostly problems with disordered eating and self-harm), though her relationship with her mother—a nasty, raging woman—leaves her more unstable than she should be. As she progresses in rehearsal, her hallucinations and anxiety attacks grow more and more frequent, and she spirals. Her desperation to achieve perfection and fully absorb the characters she plays send her into a nervous breakdown. Plus all of Nina’s pre-established bodily issues lead to a anxiety-inducing, overwhelming fear of her own body as she pulls bloody black feathers from her shoulders and fears her own reflection is going to kill her. Everything about it is claustrophobic and terrifying. Portman’s performance is incredible to watch, as she completely immerses herself in the madness and allows her face to mutate into something utterly nightmarish. 

Jackie, as a film, is driven by character. It is a stunning and lacerating portrait of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. It possesses a heavy emotional intensity as Portman together with director Pablo Larraín sift through the wreckage of Jackie’s life to find the centre of her psyche. Jackie Kennedy was an incredible woman, and Natalie Portman is an incredible actor; There is no one who could have better captured Jackie in her most defining, heartbreaking moments. The amount of emotional control Portman has here is deeply impressive. The most magnificent pieces of this performance are found in Portman’s eyes and voice. Jackie’s coolness, her dignity, her unravelling, her interminable pain—all of it pours from her eyes. The debilitating grief that seizes through her body as she wipes her husband’s blood from her face, that’s emitted from her eyes too. We are often told that eyes are the window to our souls; It may be a cliche, but Portman makes it as true as it could ever be here. She gives to the camera, and spills the entire spirit of Jacqueline Kennedy into our laps through her eyes. Portman’s voice is a near exact replication of Jackie’s uniquely poised and delicate phrasing. Every grieving quiver, every resolute statement, every sentence that cements Jackie’s fortitude is perfectly pronounced. Her performance in Jackie is perhaps the single most striking performance ever. 

Annihilation is a mind-warping exploration of our collective biological instinct to destroy ourselves—that is along with being an incandescent sci-fi thriller. While it is a visually destructive and terrifying film, it also attempts to delve into our psychology as cellular beings (Dr. Ventress spouts a particularly large amount of psychological observations about each of the lead characters). Annihilation sort of feels like a revelation to me. It is a way to unpack a psychology that I’ve dealt with on a personal level, yet see it through five different characters, who each unravel in various ways. Lena is a different sort of character from what Natalie Portman has investigated before; she’s ex-military, a biologist at John Hopkins, she’s persistent, relentless and completely goal-oriented. Her background in the military also means she has a different type of physicality than many of Portman’s other characters. Lena is a densely complex character, and she is completely fascinating. Portman’s performance here is emotionally loaded, and super naturalistic—she truly turns Annihilation into the heart-wrenching and breathtaking film that it is. Every single scene is masterful, the kind of masterful that makes your breath catch in your throat. The key to Portman’s performance here is her subtlety. Lena feels so genuine, so affectingly real; she is a whole, breathing person. 

Vox Lux is an addictive out of body experience, a spectacle built out of sci-fi anthems and the explosiveness of celebrity. Portman’s Celeste is very much a spectacle herself. Having launched a singing career after the mass shooting that left her with a bullet in the neck, Celeste is a chaotic, calamitous, anxious, and way-too-tired mess of a pop star. She traded her innocence for fame and her stardom stripped her of any autonomy. Everything she does functions within the machine of celebrity and her sole purpose seems to be manufacturing happiness through sci-fi pop. She’s not a good performer (likely a bad one) but that doesn’t matter, because she represents something more to everyone else. Portman’s performance however, is perfectly off-kilter. She embodies Celeste is the most delicious and fascinating way. The most astounding sequence of the film is when Celeste has a panic attack in an empty dressing room before her show is supposed to begin. In that moment, the viewer is reminded of the Celeste we saw at the beginning of the film: young, a little broken, and a puppet onto which the public may project all their fears and desires. This is also the only time we see a completely raw and genuine version of Celeste — not the celebrity she forces herself to be. With each breath she sucks desperately into her lungs, the layers upon layers of her being are peeled away to reveal the woman underneath. She sobs into her sister’s arms, and, shaking, confesses all of her insecurities. For all that Portman did to create Celeste as a woman of celebrity, she wrecks it all in one spectacular moment to show us the consequences of the culture we are all so very aware of. One for the money, two for the show. 

Acting is a gift, a gift that Natalie Portman has heaps of. Somehow each of her performances improve upon the ones preceding — a testament to her dedication to learning and growing in her craft. While some actors simply have one or two revelatory performances, Portman advances and matures as an actor with every film. She is wonderfully dynamic to watch on screen, and brings a level of life and Her two most anticipated upcoming roles are Lucy in Lucy in the Sky and Jane Foster as Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder.

 

by Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and undergrad film studies student who currently lives in Colorado. She loves comics, films about witches, Kacey Musgraves, and getting lost in the mountains. Her favourite films include Annihilation, anything Star Wars, and Carol. You can find her tweeting about Cersei Lannister and Big Little Lies at @jenkalish and her letterboxd is @chastainly 
 

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