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Movie review 'Big Eyes': Tim Burton paints a quirky portrait of artist Margaret Keane

Published Jan 9, 2015, 4:01 pm IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 1:42 am IST
Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ is largely a commentary on American pop culture history
A still from the movie 'Big Eyes'.
 A still from the movie 'Big Eyes'.

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Jon Polito, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter


Rating: 3 stars

Behind every successful man there is a woman; Tim Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ largely dwells on this aphorism. Based on the true story of artist Magaret Keane’s battle with her husband Walter over whether to tell the world she created her paintings, or whether to let him take the credit, ‘Big Eyes’ offers a unique perspective on modern art and its value on American marriage at the brink of the women's rights movement, giving a wife the chance to speak up against unfairness she suffered. Thanks to the vision of director Tim Burton, who has created unique cinematic worlds in most of his films from Batman to Sleepy Hollow the movie is blessed with its own unique visual style. Burton returns to the bemused wonder and charm that he demonstrated in ‘Edward Scissorhands’.

The movie opens with Margaret (Amy Adams) on the run from a husband prior to Walter, taking all her prized possessions out of her house along with her young daughter. As a single mother she struggles to survive. In addition to taking a dreary day job painting prefabricated designs on baby cribs, she paints portraits of pedestrians on weekends in city parks just to earn a few extra pennies. She depicts all her subjects regardless of their age, race or gender, with giant eyes, and this unique and haunting style quickly earns her the attention of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter in the park. She dives into her second marriage with Walter and soon he realises that her paintings outsell his works. He manages to convince Margaret that no one cares about ‘lady art’ and men can outsell women.  He tells her she should do the work, but let him take the credit in the hopes that they can sell more. To the horror of New York Times’ art critic the paintings become a sensation, making the Keanes millionaires.

But as they say money doesn’t buy happiness. Walter starts getting greedy and forces Margaret to paint constantly while he ventures out to socialize thus making her feel imprisoned. Margaret turns to Jehovah’s Witnesses who impress her with their message against lying and stealing and she finally decides to turn to court and get the rightful credit for her paintings that Walter claimed to have created.

Burton finds humanity and the social commentary within a story which could easily be an early life biopic or even a fantastical look at art and intellectual property. He strings together an interesting and entertaining story with engaging characters and a larger-than-life underlying story. That final courtroom battle is incredibly entertaining and shows that Burton can inject humour in the most mundane of events. However, Burton does not delve into the dilemma or the agony of keeping a secret that Margaret perhaps went through.

Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane is a charming liar and manipulator who can also be the funniest or the angriest guy in a room. Waltz emerges with another riveting performance following his two Best Supporting Actor Oscar wins playing an evil Nazi in 'Inglorious Basterds' and the oddball friend 'Django Unchained'. But it is Amy Adams who steals the show as Margaret. Her portrayal of the sedate Margaret who is trapped in an era when women could barely speak up for themselves is exemplary. Adams is compelling to watch with her steel-eyed gaze, and when she finally starts to crack her perfect facade, her comedic side equally entertaining. A mention must be made of Terence Stamp who is perfectly cast as the art critic John Canaday perfectly capturing the snobby, upper crust, icy real-life critic of the arts.

Keeping in sync with the name, Big Eyes is a visually dependent film, not only for the paintings, but for the period of the 50's and 60's. From the cotton candy coloured world of the free-spirited era to the clothing (especially the women), the entire feel of the era just rivets you into the film. The soundtrack of the film is in sync with eclecticism that Tim-Burton brings to the story. Lana Del Ray lends her voice to darkly grandiose tracks which add to the retro vibe.

Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ is largely a commentary on American pop culture history that has mostly been forgotten and it makes for some interesting discussions on the classic questions like - “what is art?”, “should one work for art or money?’’