Even if you’re not already familiar with the story of Margaret Keane, it’s easy to see halfway through the film why Tim Burton may relate to Keane and her famous ‘big eyed waif’ portraits. Both artists made their names on pieces of easily recognisable pop art that contain a small element of the macabre, yet scratch the surface of these quasi-gothic curiosities and there’s little behind the artifice. Margaret Keane was clearly content creating numerous variations on the same essential before she met her husband, and later the man who attached his name to the paintings, Walter Keane, but once they became a success he hatched a plot to reproduce the concept endlessly and create an artistic cash cow. There’s a subplot buried in Big Eyes – about a small collection of decidedly different works she did put under her own name –but within the flashier forgery narrative it barely registers. This really is the embodiment of how Big Eyes plays within the larger trajectory of Burton’s career. As a brief respite from the cynical self-imitation at the behest of his own Walt (Disney not Keane), Big Eyes makes little impact and doesn’t exactly prompt forgiveness for his increasingly tired schtick in recent years.
Burton presents his story as an extremely black-and-white feminist morality story. The film opens with Margaret (Amy Adams) leaving her first husband, while gossip writer Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) narrates the story as if it’s a fable, treating the misogynist culture of 1950s America like a far-off fantasy world. The lack of urgency in the film’s gender politics keep the audience at arm’s length; Burton is a filmmaker so wrapped up in artifice that his take on past chauvinism comes across as a relic from a bygone era, something to wag our fingers at from a safe distance and not actually confront now. Unfortunately, this doesn’t swing positively in the other direction either as Burton forgoes the satirical ersatz suburbia of Edward Scissorhands or the immersive and impassioned period detail of his true masterpiece Ed Wood. There are occasional bits of Burton flair, particular in the garishly colourful prison that Walter makes out of their flashy poolside mansion. In other places his attempts to inject gothic unease – in the form of real life waifs popping up – feel forced and ineffectual, an ill-thought-out play on audience expectations.
At the film’s core is Adams, who is convincing and fully rounded as Margaret Keane, but unfortunately the character offers very little. Whatever you think of her work, Keane just doesn’t come across as particularly interesting as an artist or as a person. The audience is very much aware of how awful her situation is, but the film provides little reason to care. In films like this, passivity should never be mistaken for lost agency and Margaret’s strange absence from her own narrative leaves little emotional perspective for the audience to orientate themselves around. Christoph Waltz offers no real surprises as the schmoozer-turned-tyrant Walter, who accidentally takes credit for Margaret’s work before turning himself into a celebrity and pushing her into becoming a one-woman art factory. He applies a lot of flair to an appropriately garish character, but for those who have seen the Tarantino roles that brought him fame (i.e. everyone) it reads as an easy pay cheque for a talented actor.
Everyone’s intentions here are good; it’s important that we tell stories about how maligned talented women are in all industries and I respect Burton for breaking out of his Johnny Depp Disney rebootathon. Ultimately though, Big Eyes is completely ineffectual, dampened by a weak script full of on-the-nose clichés, and telling a story that probably works best as a weekend paper feature article.
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