REVIEW: Big Eyes | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter
Run Time: 106 Minutes
Certificate: 12A

Tim Burton’s Big Eyes may be the least Tim Burton-esque Tim Burton film in years: there is no Johnny Depp, no Helena Bonham Carter, no Hammer Horror gothic undertones, and everyone looks healthy and tanned from the San Francisco sun, rather than pale and waif-like. Everyone, that is, apart from the sentimental yet creepy big-eyed paintings by Margaret Keane, which give the film its title, and stare unnervingly at the audience throughout the film.

Big Eyes tells the story of Keane, played by Amy Adams, and her husband Walter, played by the reliably villainous Christoph Waltz. Margaret meets Walter while she is a street artist, painting her big eyes for a dollar a time after walking out on her husband with her young daughter, and they are quickly married. Walter is a natural salesman and goes to galleries and bars to try and sell his wife’s paintings, as well as his own street scenes, while Margaret stays at home and paints. A misunderstanding leads a client to believe that Walter is the artist of one of the big-eyed waifs, but he takes the credit to secure the sale, which gives him an idea. As the paintings become increasingly popular, Walter takes all of the credit, telling Margaret that people will only buy the paintings if they know who painted them, while fulfilling his dream of being a well-known artist.

Christoph Waltz plays Walter’s crazed, desperate delusion brilliantly, particularly as the character becomes more and more ridiculous and dangerous as the truth about “his” paintings threatens to come out. He utilises two facial expressions throughout, the Untrustworthy Grin and the Angry Untrustworthy Grin, which would seem limited and caricaturish if Big Eyes was a wholly serious biopic, but is ideal for the tone of the film.

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the film is far more interesting and clever than its light, frothy exterior would suggest

Amy Adams is excellent too, as usual, pitching her performance perfectly between exhausted submission to her husband’s egotistical demands and the quiet defiance of a woman who walked out on her first husband in the 1950s, which, as the film’s early narration points out, was “a wonderful time, if you were a man.” Interestingly, Adams originally didn’t want the part, as she was looking to play “confident, tough” characters, but when she became a mother herself, she realised how Margaret Keane had a “steely strength” and only went along with her husband’s lies out of love for her daughter, and agreed to take the role.

Just as the characterisation of Margaret is not as one-dimensionally meek and defeated as one may initially expect, the film is far more interesting and clever than its light, frothy exterior would suggest. It looks at the fragile egos of artists desperate for respect, shows the art world’s bias against female artists at the time (and, arguably, today), and compares the critical and commercial success of art. One expertly-judged thing about the film is that it never definitively says if the big-eyed paintings are any good: the film begins with an Andy Warhol quotation, in which he says “I think what Keane has done is terrific…if it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Warhol might not have even liked the big-eyed paintings, and may have said this to be provocative and to raise the same questions about commercial success as the film does.

More characters in the film say the paintings are terrible than say that they are any good, and yet they sell and sell, becoming a true part of the popular culture at the time, as shown in a fantastic dream sequence in which Margaret is in a supermarket and the people around all have the same oversized, probing eyes as her paintings. Tim Burton collects Keane’s work, and even once commissioned her for a portrait of his ex-girlfriend, but this could just as easily be part of Burton’s natural inclination towards outsiders, particularly those who did not receive critical acclaim, such as the infamous B-movie director Ed Wood.

For me, Burton’s 1994 biopic of the Plan 9 From Outer Space director is his best film, funny and campy yet poignant, and Big Eyes is up there with Ed Wood; both films love letters to much-maligned artists, if not necessarily their art. The film is very funny, particularly in the scenes of Walter’s delusion (at one point he drunkenly vows to “take down UNICEF” after “his” mural for the charity received negative reviews), and Waltz often comes across as an angrier Woody Allen character, clearly relishing the chance to play such petty egomania. It is also, however, good-hearted, sweet, and hugely watchable, its one and three-quarter hours flying by.

With Big Eyes, Tim Burton has made one of his best films, a great story which is gripping and brilliantly played, and it is well worth seeing while it is still in cinemas.

Big Eyes is now showing at the Tyneside Cinema.

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