Much like how the world unknowingly overlooked artist Margaret Keane, so too has her Tim Burton-led biopic been mostly forgotten by critics and audiences alike.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Review by Cherie Wheeler
From meek and mild, to the mouse that roared – Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) was once the quintessential kept woman of the 1950s; a wife and mother oppressed by fear, and dominated into submission, with no way to independently survive in a society monopolised by men. It is for this reason that she allows her charming, yet egomaniacal husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) to claim her dark and intriguing portraits of children with disproportionately sized, orb-like eyes, as his own. For years Margaret upholds this façade, and becomes a social hermit locked away in her secret studio, meanwhile Walter is catapulted to a height of fame akin to that of Andy Warhol as sales go through the roof.
It completely and utterly baffles me that this film has endured such apathy from all fronts. Adams may have taken home a Golden Globe, but the Academy chose to omit Big Eyes from every potential category. In Australia it has suffered release delays, as well as poor takings at the box office, and so I am left to ask; what the hell is going on here, as in my opinion, Big Eyes may just be Amy Adams’ greatest film yet.
The Times (UK) refers to her performance in this film as “quietly extraordinary” and honestly, I could not have expressed it better myself. Her performance may not be an overt explosion of emotion like Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar-winning, harrowing screams in 12 Years A Slave, but her understated, highly convincing depiction of Margaret Keane is just as, if not more, impressive. Whilst Waltz is credible in his representation of Walter’s demise into a raving lunatic consumed by greed, I was often left to question the character’s motivations, and the scale of his emotional responses, which detracted from the film as a whole.
Not since Ed Wood (1994) has Burton ventured into the biopic domain, having established his idiosyncratic style in fantastical films such as Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Corpse Bride (2005). The subject matter of Big Eyes is relatively ordinary by comparison, but Burton never exploits a scene in order to impose his style; instead he allows the story to speak for itself, then dusts it off with a few eccentric touches to give the film an edge. He creates a very glamorous, almost fairy tale-like version of San Francisco in the late 50s through the use of highly structured, symmetrical shots combined with a rich colour palette, and there is also a cheeky nod to Edward Scissorhands (1990) with a copycat shot that shows a neat, suburban street lined with near identical homes.
From the very first shot of the film Burton had me hooked; the camera slowly zooms out of the tear-stained eye of one of Margaret’s most iconic paintings to gradually reveal the entire portrait in a beautiful long take – then BAM – a machine sputters to life, and copy after copy of the same painting is spat out into a nice, fat pile, and instantly, the magic of the moment is lost. I’m not sure if I’m reading meaning that was never intended from Burton, but there seems to be quite a few Hitchcock references in the film; an opening credit sequence commencing on an eye, closely followed by a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge (Vertigo), interjected by Amy Adams with Janet Leigh-like blonde hair, driving down a long highway with a distressed expression (Psycho)… well, intentional or no, I dig it.
My only real disappointment in this film is the score from long time Burton accomplice Danny Elfman. He employs some funky, percussive jazz chords here and there, but for the most part, his composition is filled with an obvious selection of instruments arranged in a most generic way. Burton clearly wished to avoid burdening the film with his customary flamboyance, most likely due to his personal affection for Margaret’s work (he has previously asked her to recreate Helena Bonham Carter and his Chihuahua on canvas), however I feel that the score was stripped a little too bare.
Overall, I think Big Eyes is a triumph for Burton, and a refreshing departure from his usual work. I have always loved his style, but it was beginning to become a bit monotonous with recent productions such as Dark Shadows failing to bring anything new to the table. Although a little too Hollywoodised at times, I am still inclined to award Big Eyes with four stars, as despite the minimal attention it has been paid, it is certainly worth a watch.
Big Eyes is available in Australian cinemas from Thursday March 19th
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films