The true story of American painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who revolutionised the art scene in the 1950s with his depiction of enigmatic waifs with huge eyes, until the scandalous revelation that the paintings were in fact the work of his wife Margaret (Amy Adams). Margaret had been convinced by her con artist husband to let him take credit for her work and market it, because no one likes "lady" paintings. Ensued a heated divorce and a bitter legal battle for Margaret to reclaim her work.
Let’s get this straight: Margaret Keane’s paintings are truly terrible. Sentimental and naive, they feature waifish children with enormous, spooky dark eyes. These sad creatures are often posed holding kittens and sporting big crystal teardrops spilling down their cheeks. The images are the height of kitsch, yet for a moment in time – during the 1960s – they were ubiquitous, and, apparently, beloved. Reproduced on posters, cards and merchandise, Keane’s images were art for the masses; the unsophisticated version of Andy Warhol’s soup cans.
Yet ‘bad’ art can be just as sincere as good art, and this visually gorgeous and amusing biopic, directed by Tim Burton (who has his own history depicting creepy-cute creatures on the cinema screen from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland), presents a portrait of the artist as an individual worthy of respect. Whatever we may think of the pictures themselves, there is never any question of Margaret Keane’s conviction that what she was making was a heartfelt manifestation of something deeply felt.
With her retroussé nose, a fluffy blonde hairdo and Tennessee accent, Amy Adams (who won a Golden Globe for the role) portrays Margaret as a sweet and innocent 1950s housewife whose story begins when she summons the guts to leave a bad marriage. She packs up her young daughter and moves to San Francisco where she struggles to earn a living as an illustrator at a furniture factory. At a weekend art fair, where she’s making small change painting caricatures, Margaret is seduced by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Charming and funny, he’s dressed like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. With his stripy T-shirt and rolled up jeans, he says he’s a landscape painter inspired by his magical time in the City of Love, but it turns out he’s more of a salesman with a reliable side income as a property developer. This suits Margaret, who’s desperate to be rescued. As she tells her concerned best friend (Krysten Ritter, playing a beautiful and wise-hearted beatnik), “I’m a divorcee with a child. Walter is a blessing.” And yet she loves him too, and together they really are a formidable team devoted to making and selling art.
It’s this mix of pragmatism and romanticism which is so intriguing in Margaret, and goes some way to explaining how the artist allowed her name to be erased from her work for so long. Lacking in confidence, and dazzled by Walter’s ability to turn her pictures into a fortune, she lives a lie, allowing him to take artistic credit until she can’t stand it anymore. Virtually imprisoned in a spectacular Californian bungalow (honestly, this is a 1960s beauty you want to live in) where she’s a one-woman painting production line, she must break out from a bad marriage once again.
Strangely, the film seems weakest when it should be gathering in momentum: depicting Margaret’s real life journey towards reclaiming her identity – complete with a dramatic paint-off in front of a judge to prove which of the spouses is the true artist. The big emotional payoff never comes, perhaps because every character in the film has by this point turned into a caricature: from the monstrous Walter, to the ditzy but sincere (now turned Jehovah’s Witness) Margaret, to the snobbish art critic (Terrence Stamp) and gossipy newspaper hack (Danny Huston).
Big Eyes is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, who also wrote the script for Ed Wood, Burton’s 1994 film about the legendarily ‘bad’ B-movie director. The themes and preoccupations in Big Eyes are similar, taking pleasure from the intersection of authentic artistic yearning, bad taste and the demands of commerce. Working on a much smaller budget than is typical for a Burton film (IMDB estimates a tiny US$10 million), the production and costume design, by frequent Burton collaborators Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood, are still enjoyably sumptuous – verging on, but not quite, cartoonish. The look of the film, shot by Bruno Delbonnel, takes its cues from the audience’s technicolour memories of the period and the places, especially in the scenes set in a luridly colourful Hawaii, which features as Margaret’s honeymoon location and her final escape. It’s in these details – and in one scene where Margaret’s big-eyed nightmares start to take hold – that Burton’s expressionistic tendencies are evident.
A fun and quirky biopic that works like a comic book companion to cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, the bright colours of Big Eyes nevertheless fade rather quickly in the memory.