Directed and produced by Tim Burton, Big Eyes is based on the true story of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who was one of the most successful painters of the 1950s and early 1960s. The artist earned staggering notoriety by revolutionizing the commercialization and accessibility of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The truth would eventually be discovered though: Keane’s art was actually not created by him at all, but by his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams). The Keanes, it seemed, had been living a lie that had grown to gigantic proportions. Big Eyes centers on Margaret’s awakening as an artist, the phenomenal success of her paintings, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, who was catapulted to international fame while taking credit for her work.
Based on his recent output, it’s strange to find Tim Burton going for a relatively tamer story, at least visually. But just when it seemed like he was lost to creating lackluster, quirky adaptations for good, Burton turns in the most interesting topic he’s filmed since 2003’s Big Fish. While its visually bears little of Burton’s frequent visual pizzazz, Big Eyes offers a story that’s both ridiculous and fascinating.
The core of Big Eyes is, of course, the relationship between Walter and Margaret Keane. It’s an abusive relationship, certainly, but one rooted more in psychological damage than physical abuse. When Walter finds that he can claim credit for Margaret’s “Big Eyes” paintings, since she signs them with just her surname, he’s able to persuade her by impressing on her that, as a woman, no one will take her seriously as an artist. Is it true? To a degree, maybe. At one point, Margaret attempts to showcase her non-“Big Eyes” paintings, but is roundly ignored.
What Margaret lacks, though, is Walter’s forceful personality. Margaret shows signs of being able to choose decisions that are right for her, but only when truly backed into a corner – the film opens with her grabbing her daughter and leaving an apparently unhealthy relationship with her first husband. With Walter, she expresses the need to go with his charade because it provides them with an income, and because Walter married her so she could keep custody of her daughter.
It doesn’t help matters that Walter doesn’t necessarily seem like a jerk. He is, undoubtedly, but he’s also charming to a fault. He’s a likable asshole. It’s hard to watch the film without liking Walter in some capacity, which helps explain why Margaret stays with him.
Big Eyes also tackles an interesting issue about the consumption of art. The public wants Keane’s paintings. They see the name “Keane,” assume that Walter’s the artist, and buy up original paintings, posters, prints – you name it. It’s a source of growing conflict, as art critics diminish Keane’s work as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Walter takes (very public) issue with the arguments, since his name is attached to the paintings. For Margaret, though, it’s more personal since it’s actually her work. “Art is personal,” she states, and while there are certainly other arguments to be made about what qualifies as art, there’s a level of truth to her belief.
With Burton’s style largely taking a back seat, it’s up to the performers to really sell the film. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are both ultimately well-cast here, though not without some notes. Adams works well, and often, playing strong women, so it’s odd to see her in a role that’s largely quiet. It gives her some room to play with in the moments where Margaret finds some strength, but even then, it’s a relatively restrained performance. Waltz, meanwhile, is at the other end of the performance spectrum. He’s outgoing and full of life, and like many of Waltz’s best roles, both charming and slimy. The film doesn’t make an attempt to cover his accent, which is odd for playing an American, but something I found to be a minor quibble. The supporting cast is mixed (the occasional narration from Danny Huston is particularly unnecessary), but Adams and Waltz are strong enough to carry the film.
Even with his commercial successes, Burton has considered himself an outsider for years, so it’s easy to guess that he connected with Margaret Keane’s status as an outsider in the art world. In many ways, reigning in his own tendencies to tell her story reflects the way she approached her own art for years. It’s a good call. Margaret Keane’s story is surprising, and ultimately satisfying; the more people who know about it, the better. That it provides Burton with his best film in years is a nice bonus.