Film Review | Big Eyes

Stop the press: Tim Burton makes a normal movie.

Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays real-life artist Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's uncharacteristically 'normal'-looking drama
Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays real-life artist Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's uncharacteristically 'normal'-looking drama

We shouldn’t let the personal lives of film directors dictate the way we assess their films, but Tim Burton’s recently announced split from longtime girlfriend and frequent star of choice Helena Bonham Carter appears to augur well for the seasoned master of gothic whimsy. It’s all the more delicious when this sudden spike in quality is observed in a film that is, in fact, all about how an artist’s romantic life impinges on their work.

Burton’s biopic of artist Margaret Keane lacks two of the director’s frequent thespian collaborators – Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp – and the comparatively restrained film – co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – is also free of the kind of twee stylistic excesses that have rendered Burton something of a purveyor of kitsch in recent years.

On the heels of a messy divorce, Margaret (Amy Adams) is struggling to make ends meet and keep the custody of her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye/Madeleine Arthur). It being the 1950s, a clean start in San Francisco is nigh impossible for a single mother, let alone one with artistic inclinations – whose haunting paintings of disproportionately doe-eyed little girls are unlikely to impress the minimalism-inclined cultural elite. That is, until she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) a smooth-talking ‘Sunday painter’ and successful real estate agent who vows to kiss Margaret’s troubles away. He makes good on this promise, only there’s a catch: given that the public is unlikely to warm to strange paintings by an upstart female artist, he cons them into thinking they’re his work.

Reluctantly accepting the (lucrative) arrangement at first, Margaret’s ego and conscience soon begin to chafe as Walter’s elaborate fraud balloons into a nationwide phenomenon, with ‘Margaret’s paintings attracting media attention and rich buyers. But extricating herself from the complex web of lies she’s had a hand in weaving won’t be easy.

It’s telling that screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski previously collaborated with Burton on Ed Wood (1990), another biopic about an artist on the fringe. Though ‘Wood’ – the story of the infamous B-movie horror and sci-fi filmmaker – taps comfortably into Burton’s love for old Hollywood, its basis in fact tempers some of his usual cartoony excesses.

And although it has none of the gothic touches that made Ed Wood a distinctive, though still logical, choice for Burton, Big Eyes walks a similar line between earnest storytelling and flashes of an assertive stylistic palette.

There’s no room here for dark fairytale histrionics, black curlicues appearing out of nowhere, or Johnny Depp to barge in sporting a funny hat. But that’s not to say that this family drama-cum-kunstlerroman is all ‘vanilla’. The 50s setting – with a backdrop ricocheting from San Francisco to Hawaii as the Keane family fortune fluctuates – gives Burton a lot to play with, not to mention how Keane’s ever-present paintings – of which Burton is a collector – lend a haunting flourish all by themselves. Despite the fact that he’s working with real-life source material, Burton manipulates the visual narrative with brash pastel colours, lending a hyperreal look to the film that isn’t distant from the raison d’etre of Keane’s paintings.

He also finds able and willing collaborators in Adams and Waltz; both Oscar-decorated stars and audience favourites who affect a natural chemistry – you believe them as a married couple, even – especially – when they’re sparring. That’s not to say the duo challenge themselves… if anything, they stick rigidly to their respective playbooks. Margaret is the lost lamb who eventually finds her way – a role Adams has been perfecting since her breakthrough performance in Junebug (2005), and Walter’s brand of slimy charisma is consistent with both his kingmaking role in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Carnage (2011), particularly as it dovetails into drunken, violent resentment.

In a lot of ways, Big Eyes is a story that simply sells itself: a remarkable case of prolonged artistic fraud spiced with the endemic misogyny of its time, it culminates in an oddball courtroom drama that’s the very definition of ‘stranger than fiction’. The significant move by Burton and his screenwriting duo is to also squeeze in a ‘What is art?’ discussion into the proceedings. Are Margaret’s naïve paintings worth our time, and is her inevitable skewering by the critical elite – embodied here by a delightfully hammy Terence Stamp – justified? More crucial to the story still: can the raw artistic impulse be separated from its public face?

Big Eyes is hardly a contender for the hall of fame list of films about artists. But if at the very least, it alerts us to the fact that Burton can still make a solid film – one that sensitively balances drama and comedy – without having to resort to childish tics. It’s a heartening realization, particularly for film lovers of my generation. After all, this is a man that furnished our imaginations for quite some time: from Beetlejuice to Batman, from Edward Scissorhands to Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd. 

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