Given the recent output from Tim Burton, a relatively low-key cgi-free film would seem something of a welcome break. Big Eyes gives us exactly that. Telling the so-crazy-it-must-be-true story of artists Margaret and Walter Keane and the success of the paintings of big-eyed children with the subsequent legal battle surrounding the credit. Margaret, a quiet, recently divorced artist is using her talent as a street artist before estate agent Walter spots her and sees the dollar signs. With the right marketing strategy and salesmanship, Walter can make Keane paintings successful – but which Keane?
Cristoph Waltz shines as the sleazy Walter, the man who takes credit for his wife’s paintings and becomes a national celebrity following appearances on talk shows. Waltz clearly relishes the ambiguous nature of the character initially before an eventual turn into the absurd. On the opposite side to Waltz, Amy Adams anchors the film with a vulnerable and somewhat naive performance as Margaret. She seems most happy to leave the sales aspect of her work to her husband and continues to paint – until Walter pushes his luck.
The film works on another level as a satire about the place of gender – with the time period on this being between the 1950s and 1970s, the male is the dominant force in society. This is shown with one particular line of dialogue explaining that nobody would buy ‘women’s paintings’ and quite overtly mentioned in the opening lines to the film – ‘The 50’s were a great time, if you were a man’.
Ultimately, it is very clearly a Tim Burton film with all of the slightly over-the-top Burton tropes of his last 6 films dialed back – for the most part. During one particular sequence, Margaret begins to see real people in the style of her big-eyed paintings – a sequence that screams of Burton. It is this toning down which elevates the film. Art is clearly a subject close to Burton’s heart, with its reappearance throughout his work. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and arguably Willy Wonka can all be seen as artists in their fields producing work which cause people to stay away and stand-off – in this instance, Margaret Keane is consciously removed from society as a result of Walter taking the credit.
The film works on the level at which it aims – to show the struggle and strength of Margaret Keane after initially getting carried away with the fact that people actually want her work. Adams performance is the grounding that the film requires and it is with her understated character that allows Waltz’s Walter to command the space and attention.
Big Eyes is a very interesting and solidly entertaining biopic about the role of the woman in the art circles during the time period with wonderful performances from its two leads. The toned down Burton delivers a deft touch to an intriguing and increasingly absurd narrative.