Charlotte Palmer reviews Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s tale of artistic fraud
Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is known for her once-ubiquitous paintings of wistful, big-eyed children. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, they were some of the most famous images in the world, even before they were associated with fraud and scandal. Her husband Walter Keane (a manically good Christoph Waltz), realising that her paintings attracted more positive attention than the insipid street scenes he was selling, decided to claim them as his own. He used his charisma and entrepreneurial talents to shift them by the unit, while Margaret was shut away at the back of the house working incredulously fast. She was forbidden to tell even her daughter that the paintings were hers. Director Tim Burton heightens the fairy-tale, fable-like qualities of this true life story.
Despite the interesting premise, the film’s exploration of art, the art world and Margaret’s own inner life often lack depth – several interesting questions arise but they are often abandoned for the sake of moving the plot along quickly. Sometimes this works well and lends the film an enigmatic and open-minded tone, leaving us to decide whether we’d consider Margaret’s paintings ‘art’ or not.
On the whole, though, the plot feels too cursory. The story skirts round key moments which are central to our investment in the characters as people, rather than as cartoonish figures representing good and evil. How did Margaret decide to change her style in order to sell art that she could put under her own name? Was it really as comically sudden as the film suggests? We wonder if she felt like a fraud, or perhaps artistically unsatisfied, for changing her style at will to have work that she could publicly call her own. It was a new, more impressionistic and mature way of painting, but arguably not as eye-catching, beguiling and unique as the pictures which the world believed were her husband’s. And why exactly does she paint these big-eyed children and feel compelled to do so, again and again?
While Amy Adams is, unsurprisingly, wonderful as Margaret Keane, the script is often weak and struggles to express the essence of a shy woman who was devoted to her husband. Her complexities lie in her thoughts and her face, which always painfully betrays her emotions. We feel her sadness, her fear, her triumph, not through her words but through her eyes. Margaret believes that ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’ because she became temporarily deaf as a young girl. She learned to communicate through her eyes, and to watch the eyes of others closely.
A strength of Adams’ acting ability is her ability to engage the audience so compellingly despite, or because of, her character’s quietness. She is an appealing leading actress, and is a fascinating centre to the film. The gaps in the script and the mere sketches which constitute the other characters – the snobbish critic (Terence Stamp) and despairing gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) – are little more than slightly humorous antagonists representing ‘the other point of view’.
Big Eyes does manage to escape the script’s failing due to Adam’s performance and the films visual beauty. Margaret Keane’s paintings are certainly not high art – but the fact that Burton’s film is about a commercial artist, not a Picasso or a Raphael, is partially why it is, on the whole, a refreshing and entertaining watch.
Image credit: Rolling Stone