Whilst a far from conventional story, Big Eyes may just be the most conventional film that Tim Burton has ever made. More a movie about ego and emotional manipulation than about art, Big Eyes tells the story of painter Margaret Keane and her battle to be rightfully acknowledged as the creator of artwork for which her scheming husband Walter took credit. In fact for much of the film, Margaret is, quite literally, confined to the shadows of her husband’s ‘success’. Hidden away in attics and locked studio spaces to churn out innumerable paintings of ‘big eyed’ children, Margaret’s lack of self-esteem is no match for Walter’s bluster and bullying. It is easy to see how the nature of Keane’s art might appeal to Burton, the images in the paintings very much something we might expect to see in one of the gothic tales for which he is renowned. However, in this instance, Burton has resisted the urge to delve into the darkness, instead opting for a story that, whilst fairly straightforward in its narrative trajectory, is yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction.
Having absconded from her marriage with only a suitcase and her young daughter, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) arrives in San Francisco with no money, no work experience, no connections and a crippling lack of self-worth. Out of necessity more so than any sense of ambition to find success as an artist, Margaret starts selling her paintings at craft fairs. It is at such an event that she meets the loquacious Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a man whose ego, deceit and delusions know no bounds. The naïve Margaret becomes swept up in Walter’s grandiose tales of his own talent and soon enough the pair are married. It isn’t long before Walter starts taking credit as the artist responsible for Margaret’s paintings and this is where the narrative action really begins. A canny self-promoter, Walter convinces all and sundry (including himself) that he really is the artist responsible for all of the big eyes images which, whilst extremely popular, are dismissed by the art community as kitsch and crass. Art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) describes Walter as an “appalling, grotesque, tasteless hack.” Margaret, meanwhile, serves as nothing more than a production line, all but invisible to both those feting Walter for his talent (including celebrities and dignitaries) and those deriding him as nothing more than a populist pretender (such as Jason Schwartzmann’s pompous gallery owner) .
As disgusting, delusional and deceitful as Walter is, it is hard to muster a lot of sympathy for Margaret. She perpetuates Walter’s deception by refusing to step in and set the record straight, even lying to her daughter to maintain the ruse. Perhaps we need more information about the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of her first marriage to better understand why she was so willing to accede to Walter’s deceptions for so long. I mean, she challenges him on a couple of occasions but never really stands up to him with any conviction. Ultimately though, there is still plenty to admire even if you can’t find yourself overly enamoured by any of the characters.
The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski balances the serious with the satirical and the film is technically and aesthetically attractive, rich with a vibrant colour palette. There are only a couple of particularly recognisable Burton-esque moments, one of which is a scene in a supermarket where Margaret visualises everybody as though her paintings have come alive. Adams plays Margaret as somebody who certainly seems to be feeling something, but is unable to articulate her emotions to her husband, or anybody else for that matter, remaining somewhat inert in her own story. Waltz hams it up, perhaps too much at times, seemingly determined to compensate for Adams’ low-key performance. There are minor characters such as Margaret’s only friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) and a newspaper journalist (Danny Huston) who really bring nothing of consequence to the story; Huston’s Dick Nolan providing a voice-over that doesn’t tell us anything we can’t see playing out on the screen. Big Eyes might not be Burton’s best work, but it is refreshing to see him take on something that challenges our perceptions of him and the types of films he makes.