Big Eyes – Film Review
– A STUNNING TRUE MASTERPIECE –
This weekend I went to see the incredible ‘Big Eyes’ film by Tim Burton which I have been ranting about for well over a year now. It did not disappoint! It was amazing, a fantastic cast, stunning scenery, beautiful music and retro 50’s style life narrating the difficult, artistic life of Margaret Keane.
See my previous blog here with the trailer.
The American artist Margaret Keane painted sorrowful-looking children whose faces were dominated by oversize “windows to the soul” which became a sensation, generating huge earnings and achieving bizarre popular icon status. Yet Keane failed to receive credit for her work, having agreed and been bullied to allow her extrovert husband, Walter, to serve as the public face of the Keane brand. Later, after the couple parted, they came to legal blows, a court case in Honolulu descending into performance farce as each endeavoured to prove that they were the artist behind “an infinity of kitsch”.
The script for Big Eyes is by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the writers behind Burton’s masterpiece Ed Wood, with which this bears intriguing comparison. Most obviously, both films are about artists whose work was reviled by critics: Wood was famously dubbed the world’s worst film-maker; the Keane paintings were roundly denounced by, among others, New York Times art critic John Canaday (haughtily played here by Terence Stamp).
Margaret is depicted as a true artist whose soul finds expression in the plaintive, teary faces her husband forces her to churn out at increasingly industrial speeds. We are not asked to embrace the paintings themselves (the film remains agnostic about their artistic merit), merely to accept that their creator was sincere and deserves to be recognised as such.
As Margaret, Amy Adams does a very fine job of engaging our sympathies, her slightly startled manner suggesting a potent blend of intuitive fire and sensitive vulnerability. There’s something birdlike about her physical mannerisms, as if in her stillness she is paying close attention to her surroundings, yet may be scared into flight at any moment. All this is in stark contrast to Walter, played with much broader brushstrokes by Christoph Waltz as a cartoonish cad with more than a dab of the pantomime villain. Initially charming (although his beaming smile screams psycho-craziness from the outset), Walter rapidly becomes a domineering monster, increasingly consumed by the myth of his own genius, forcing his wife into living a lie.
It’s tempting to accuse Waltz of hamming it up, although given the well-documented egomania of his subject (who once told Life magazine: “Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane”), it’s hard to tell where truth ends and exaggeration begins. In fact, the most absurd moments from the courtroom showdown to which this drama builds are a matter of public record, proving that you really couldn’t make this stuff up. Elsewhere, the film seems to inhabit a twisted fairytale netherworld between fact and fiction; while the early pastel-shaded views of picket-fence America evoke the suburban settings of Edward Scissorhands, later scenes depict Margaret as a princess trapped in an ivory tower, while Walter raves like a rampaging beast.
Beneath the recurrent quirky Burton tropes, both visual and narrative, Big Eyesworries away at larger themes of authorship (Walter went to his grave asserting his own genius), the concept of “good” versus “bad” art (we open with a drily laudatory quote from Warhol) and the role of the critic. It also provides a fascinating portrait of a woman first suffering and then challenging a world in which men had the upper hand – domestically, professionally, artistically. Certainly, there is a feminist dynamic to Margaret’s story; for all its outlandishness, this is ultimately an everyday tale of a woman finding her own voice in a chauvinistic environment, escaping the shackles of an abusive marriage to step into the spotlight alone.
I love this grown up style Burton film, similar to the overlooked Big Fish (2003), ‘Big Eyes’ captures a true story of a wonderful artist who like Burton portrays the darker edged big eyed creatures in their work. (Just like me too 🙂 which I got told off in art class for) I still do love all the typical Burton films though! 🙂
Did you see the real Margaret Keane in the film? I noticed her and it made me smile, but don’t worry I won’t spoil it and you can look out for her yourself. They show you at the end 🙂
I also need to say how wonderful Lana Del Rey’s soundtrack for the film was, especially the ‘Big Eyes’ song.. genius. I really hope they all get some much deserved awards for this film. What a perfect team!