Big Eyes
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter
106 mins; Class 12A;
KRS Releasing Ltd

In the 1950s and 1960s the pop art world enthusiastically embraced a series of paintings depicting cartoon-like children with dark, enormous and expressive eyes.

Their creator, Walter Keane, was reviled and celebrated in equal measure – art critics slamming his work as mediocre and snooty gallery owners refused to exhibit his works.

However, Keane’s PR prowess, his prolific output and business sense in keeping the prices low enticed the public to fall over themselves in attempting to purchase a specimen of his work.

Yet what was being perpetuated was massive fraud, as it was in fact Margaret Keane, Walter’s reclusive wife, who actually painted the pictures, and Big Eyes tells the truly fascinating story of this woman who escaped a loveless marriage with her child only to be swept away by Walter’s charismatic artist, in whom she saw a soul mate yet was too timid to see him for what he really was.

The bizarre nature of (Margaret) Keane’s subjects is perfect fodder for Tim Burton and the film boasts many of the eccentric filmmaker’s hallmarks – the 1950s perfectly brought to life with pastel precision by his production and costume designers Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood, and Burton himself may have keenly identified with Margaret’s keen eye for the absurd and Walter’s enthusiasm for his (embezzled) art – if not his vile nature.

Moreover, the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski goes a long way in underlining the fact that in that period, women were still considered second-class citizens – when Margaret begins to question Walter’s actions, she confides in a priest only to be solemnly told that ‘the man is the head of the household, you should follow his judgement’; while Walter explains away his larcenous actions with a simple ‘people don’t buy lady art’. Yet this feels too much like a trivial way of explaining what must have been years of emotional hell for Margaret, and the script does her story an injustice by treating it so superficially.

As Margaret and Walter, Amy Adams and Christophe Waltz seem to be in different films. Adams cannot be faulted for her portrayal of this vulnerable victim; a woman who slowly comes out of her shell to claim her rightful place as an artist as she realises the extent of the abuse. Yet, I longed for more insight into this woman who was forced to lie to her daughter and avoid her friends to carry on with the cover up. The depth of her emotional dependence on Walter is never truly explored.

On the other hand, for an actor who has created some richly drawn, evil characters in the past, Waltz’s unusually over-the-top performance offers little hint of the cunning, abusive husband Walter was supposedly. His gregarious conman is more of a comic figure, someone to be laughed at not feared.

It is a rare misstep for Burton who seems unsure what tone to adopt throughout. Certain visual and inventive flourishes of his are evident – when Margaret reaches rock bottom she begins to hallucinate her ‘big eyes’ on people at the supermarket – yet, he treats the vital moments in the story in a humdrum manner with the denouement coming across as pedestrian rather than the triumphant moment it should have been.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us