- Amy Adams as Margaret Keane
- Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane
- Danny Huston as Dick Nolan
- Terence Stamp as John Canaday
- Jason Schwartzman as Ruben
- Krysten Ritter as DeeAnn
A biographical drama about Margaret Keane, who for years was in the shadow of her husband Walter who claimed credit for her work, Big Eyes is evocatively translated to the screen and showcases Tim Burton’s direction with a maturity, and great performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. If it’s another side of Burton you want, starting with Big Eyes is a recommended one from me.
We start in the late 1950’s, where Margaret packs up her daughter Jane and leaves her first husband. She travels and attempts to make a life in North Beach, San Francisco. But being a divorced single mother isn’t easy for Margaret, though she gets a job at a furniture company. However, art is her biggest passion in the world and the things she paints are often of children with extremely large eyes, which she tries to sell outdoors though to no avail. It is here that charming Walter Keane enters the picture, posing as a painter himself( though we’ll soon learn otherwise). Walter, with his stories and larger than life personality, sweeps Margaret off her feet and after a brief courtship the two are married. With both being art minded, they attempt to make something of their lives doing what they love. After both craft paintings that are displayed in a nightclub, someone takes interest in one of Margaret’s big eye paintings. Rather than jinx a sale, Walter lies and says that he is the artist. Making money from this Walter is thrilled, though Margaret is dismayed at him being so covert. Ultimately, as Margaret is so vulnerable and fragile, Walter uses this to manipulate her into corroborating his scheme and keeping her silent as he passes off her work as his own. This traps Margaret in a big lie that she doesn’t know how to escape from(mainly because she has helped perpetuate it under duress), and for a while she goes along with it, continuing to paint what people don’t know is her work. But as the paintings get more noticed and Walter more greedy, she realises that she can no longer live this sham any more and with burning and emerging toughness, she takes action to reclaim her rightful ownership in a court battle.
Tim Burton is behind the camera in the director’s chair and he does something different here. Over his last few films, I felt that Burton was somehow becoming a bit rote and not at his usual best, due to growing use of CGI and a lack of attention to story. But with Big Eyes, Burton discovers his footing again by toning down his usual macabre sentiments in favour of a deeper and revealing style. Burton doesn’t completely jettison his usual kookiness, as can be attested to a few peculiar sequences where Margaret sees other people with eyes similar to her work, he just reins in his creepy visuals a bit more and crafts a very intimate and personal story that stands out. I definitely enjoyed this more traditional approach from Tim Burton and peppered with a little sprinkling of his unusual magic that don’t overpower the story, Big Eyes excels at being a change of pace in the most effective way. You can see that Burton has a big respect for the artistic mind by the way he presents Margaret’s emotional attachments to her work, that sadly were relegated to the background by the conniving cons of her husband. As dark as the story is when you look at it closely, there is a wealth of humour thrown in that makes fun of opinions critics have on art and the overall value of it, specifically in regards to monetary worth, which it seems the slimy Walter was consumed with. When the battle of wills omen escape and it leads to court, fun can be head in sequences that prove the truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Now I wouldn’t say Big Eyes is a perfect movie, it does have a few little flaws. During various moments, the story did find itself losing its way and getting a little repetitive. And a bit more oomph in the middle may have been beneficial, though it isn’t something that does harm to an intriguing piece. But I found myself invested watching this film for the story it provided and an insight into the mind of an artist, while covering themes of personal connection to ones work and female oppression. The flaws I mentioned which in honesty where little ones, thankfully don’t spoil the overall product which is a definite improvement on Burton’s recent output because it tries something you wouldn’t expect from him. The visuals are kept to being bright and ever so slightly mocking as the real turmoil of Margaret was largely hidden by the outward appearance of everything being serene. And Danny Elfman provides a brimming, urgent score, perfectly in touch with Margaret’s awakening.
Amy Adams gorgeously and subtly plays Margaret Keane as a shy and meek woman, who slowly burns with resentment at her circumstances, knowing that some of it falls to her. Right from the start, Adams makes you relate and sympathise with this woman whose good nature was taken advantage of until she eventually decided enough was enough and she wanted her story to be known. She starts out birdlike and fragile and then little by little through nuance, Adams invests the part with a burgeoning voice that won’t be silenced anymore or swept under the carpet. It is an exquisite and moving performance that doesn’t need big theatrics to be effective; instead the quiet and graceful approach from Amy Adams works beautifully in imbuing the part of this artist with a passion and inner strength that eventually percolates through. At the other end of the spectrum is Christoph Waltz. His portrayal of the ruthless Walter is one that features loud and bold brush strokes, which Waltz obviously has customary fun with. I’ve read other reviews that say that he goes way over the top in his work and that it is a detriment to Big Eyes. I wouldn’t go that far because I think the part needs an exuberance that Waltz can provide as evidenced by his other work in movies. The part of Walter is this big talking, savvy man with hardly any subtlety, much like the ringmaster of the circus. And I must say, Waltz has that energy and more, which I think balances well with the gentle work of Amy Adams. Danny Huston as the man narrating the film, is appropriately barbed and cynical, which seems ideal as he is portraying a gossip columnist. The great Terence Stamp infuses his small appearance as a scathing critic with a biting sensibility, while Jason Schwartzman makes for laughs as a snooty artist. It is only Krysten Ritter who doesn’t resonate, as she is given scant to do and can’t bring whatever life there was to the part of Margaret’s friend.
A down to Earth change of pace from Tim Burton, Big Eyes proves to be a memorable version of a true life story, that has a core of emotion and respect regarding art and two excellent performances from the leads.