After a succession of high concept and fantasy films, director Tim Burton has returned to the kind of magic realism that brought him tremendous acclaim early in his career. Re-teaming with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (with whom he made his classic ‘Ed Wood’), he turns his unique perspective on Margaret Keene, one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century and the victim of a truly bizarre case of art fraud. Forced away from his usual tropes, and with one hell of a cast and story at his disposal, Burton is finally given the opportunity with ‘Big Eyes’ to show just how skilled a craftsman he really is.
When Margaret (Amy Adams) marries artist Walter Keene (Christoph Waltz) in the 1950s, she’s a recent divorcee with a young daughter and a passion for painting. Her work is distinct and highly personal - portraits of children painted with enormous eyes, full of melancholy and sadness. Her hopes of a happy new marriage and settled life take an unexpected and disturbing turn though when Walter begins to take credit for her paintings, convincing her that it’s for the good of the family. As Margaret’s paintings achieve enormous success and acclaim and Walter becomes an icon of the art world, Margaret has to choose between a secure lifestyle with a man she cannot stand and an artistic integrity that could cost her everything.
What makes Margaret’s story such a gift is that it addresses an enormous collection of ideas and issues - the struggle between art and commercialism, the integrity of the artist, the dismissal of women in the art world, the patriarchal mistreatment and abuse of women, and how great work is achieved when it comes from the soul of the artist. Thankfully, Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski leave nothing unattended, making ‘Big Eyes’ a surprisingly powerful and uncomfortable film. Great care is taken to explain and understand why Margaret allowed Walter to steal her work and identity for so long, how just being a woman in the art world forces her into an essentially abusive situation. This is a tale much stranger than fiction, and Burton injects the film with a perfect balance of wit, humour and depth. His distinct visual style is there, channelled through the period textures and colours with moments of magic peppered throughout. The film takes its time, allowing the story and characters to breathe and as the story gets even stranger and the relationship between Margaret and Walter begins to fracture, so too does the film. The only serious misstep is an infuriating narration from Danny Huston, who plays the very minor role of reporter Dick Nolan. All it does it repeat information that we’ve already gotten from the visual storytelling, and does a surprising amount of damage to the film.
Stripped of his usual tropes, ‘Big Eyes’ demonstrates one of Burton’s great skills, and that is working with actors. Across the board, the cast deliver tremendous performances, especially its leads. Amy Adams plays Margaret with a quiet fury and deep sadness, almost as if she were a figure in Margaret’s own paintings. She is subtle and broken, like a wounded animal trapped in a cage. It’s another fine performance in a career already buckling under so many fine performances. By contrast, Waltz is enormous and maniacal as Walter, as loud and bombastic as Margaret is quiet and controlled. What makes it work is the hidden confusion underneath - in Waltz’s hands, Walter isn’t just a monster but a man with severe problems and delusions, all of which threaten and hurt everyone around him. They’re supported by a great ensemble that includes Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp and Jon Polito.
Stripped of his usual tropes, ‘Big Eyes’ demonstrates one of Burton’s great skills, and that is working with actors.
‘Big Eyes’ is a quiet return to form for Tim Burton, not only by demonstrating his skill as a director but by delivering a film of tremendous depth and power. It’s hard not be taken aback by Margaret Keene’s story, of a woman dedicated to her art even when it is being stolen from her by the person she trusts the most. This is a gorgeous film with many important things to say, all said with eloquence, quiet fury and great integrity.
PICTURE & SOUND
Roadshow’s 1080p 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is an absolute delight, bursting with colour and detail. The visual look of the film has been carefully crafted, and in high definition you can really take in all its textures, especially when it comes to the paintings themselves. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is equally rich and mostly well-balanced, though the narration from Huston is aggravatingly quiet.
Only two featurettes are included, though both offer a lot of information about the making of the film and the true story behind it. ‘The Making of Big Eyes’ (21:33) is a more generic look at the film, mixing interviews with cast, crew and Keene herself with archival images and behind-the-scenes footage. ‘Q&A Highlights’ (33:55) takes sections from a number of Q&A sessions around the release of the film, giving a surprisingly more candid conversation of the film from all the key players. Both featurettes add to the richness of the film and its relationship with both the true story and the world of visual art.