They say the eyes are like a window to the soul. And the story of Big Eyes and specifically artist, Margaret Keane would show one sad and sinister tale. The latest film by director, Tim Burton (a Keane fan) throws his familiar clutch and styles away to instead present a biopic that is rich, honest and interesting.
In the 1950s Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) was considered a sort of social pariah as a divorcee with a young daughter. But she soon met Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an art fair where they embarked on a short courtship and she then married him. Keane was also an artist but he was known for producing staid, French landscapes while Margaret painted melancholy waifs with large eyes. What Walter lacked in artistic and creative skills he made up for as a fast-talking hustler and entrepreneur.
Walter Keane was the salesman responsible for having both his and his wife’s work displayed in the Hungry I Club. But his wife’s work proved more popular so he took credit for the paintings. From there the two became complicit in a huge lie which saw Walter dominating the dutiful Margaret and taking all of the credit for her work. This meant that Walter went on to become a rich, international celebrity while Margaret toiled away quietly in her isolated studio. She eventually left him in the seventies and revealed the truth about the artworks’ authorship, which saw the pair wind up in court.
This biopic deals with a lot of issues including the subjugation of women, the real worth of art (i.e. monetary gains vs. validation), relationship dysfunctions and the issue of the quality of art versus its popularity. The story builds slowly at first but it does lead to a dramatic trial. This film boasts a strong performance by Amy Adams (who won a Golden Globe award for this role) as the vulnerable painter who was trying to be an independent woman in a man’s world. The same cannot be said for Christoph Waltz’s acting because his slimy, dirty, rotten, scoundrel and villain seems more absurd and cartoonish by the film’s end.
This biopic is beautifully shot but it shifts in tone. There are some scenes where the mood is light and peppered with jokes (like when the naïve Margaret thinks espresso is reefer) to the downright haunting. Burton’s forcing of Margaret to walk through a supermarket where her mass-produced artworks sit alongside Campbell’s soup cans as she imagines customers having the enlarged eyes of her waifs is genius. The soundtrack also reflects this varied palette with Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman offering up a smoky, jazz soundtrack that fits the period, while Lana Del Rey sings a specially-written, eponymous song that is quite dark and haunting.
Big Eyes isn’t perfect but it does a good job at shining a light on an art scandal. The writing team behind Ed Wood(Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) have written a visceral story that will have you shaking your head in disbelief and asking lots of questions. It makes for a complex and thought-provoking film that is unlike a lot of Burton’s other work.
The story of Margaret Keane is a true one that does seem stranger than fiction at times. This film does not set out to critique Keane’s artworks (the art world’s disdain for the quirky pictures is shown through Terence Stamp’s cameo as a scathing, New York art critic) but instead focuses on the more emotional aspects of the story. Keane had said that the artworks were like tiny pieces of her and it’s troubling that her former husband attempted to steal this all from her. It therefore makes for a really heart-wrenching account that is fascinating and one that will strike a chord with audiences that let this biopic in.
Originally published on 16 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/16/film-review-big-eyes-usa-2014/
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