Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)
Big Eyes marks a change of form for Tim Burton, who has previously stuck with the same cast and crew from film to film. It is his first film since 1990 not to be edited by Chris Lebenzon, and his first since 1999 not produced by Richard D. Zanucks (who died in 2012). But more obviously, it’s his first live action film since 1996 not starring either his (now ex-) partner, Helena Bonham Carter, or his tried and true star, Johnny Depp. And while Depp usually entertains in these roles time and time again, the change is appreciated.
Burton is known for his whimsical, fantasy pieces, with Big Eyes his first biographical foray since Ed Wood in 1994. As a fan of his usual work, I feared Big Eyes would be comparatively dull, but never fear, Burtonites. Big Eyes still contains enough of that Burton charm, and despite being a biopic, he is able to play with the theme of art in his off-beat, fantastical way. The artist in question is Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) passed her work off as his own, becoming a household name and reeling in the big bucks. The film charts their relationship from beginning to end, culminating in an uproarious courtroom battle over ownership of Margaret’s ‘Big Eyes’ style portraits.
Of course it’s difficult to make a biopic these days without facing inevitable criticism. Statements by Walter Keane’s daughter cast doubt on the truthfulness of the screenplay, which is firmly on Margaret’s side. Indeed the final courtroom scene seems highly exaggerated, though reportedly this follows real-life court transcripts, and are toned down, if anything. The facts would appear to be on Margaret’s side, though as with anything maybe we can never really know for sure.
Amy Adams is flawless as Margaret Keane. Though confined by a sexist society in 1950s America, she is portrayed as a strong woman. She’s a victim, but she certainly isn’t weak. In the first scene we see her walking out on her first husband with her daughter – an outrageous act for a woman at the time. And despite being used and (emotionally) abused by her second husband for the best of ten years, she does stick it up the old codger eventually. And proves that art isn’t solely the domain of men.
If you can get past his accent (which didn’t bother me), Christoph Waltz is marvellous as the increasingly tyrannical Walter Keane. Once again he’s a charmer who is just waiting to blow his lid. Waltz is so often cast in these roles, but he’s just so damn good at it. The absurdity of his actions produces some laugh-out-loud moments in an otherwise disturbing picture of domestic partnership. The courtroom scene is simply killer and had the audience in stitches.
When you peel past the A-list performers and the Burton pizzazz, Big Eyes is, at its core, a film about the effect of one big lie on a woman’s life. This secret affects Margaret’s identity both as an artist and a mother, and her sense of achievement is dampened by her lack of recognition. Though the 1950s setting presents an altogether different experience for women relative to today, the themes of gender inequality still strike a chord. We’ve still got a fair way to go, but we’re getting there. The creation and success of films such as these, which have strong women at their centre, are testament to that. Tim Burton may have branched out for Big Eyes, but it is in a promising direction. Now all we need is for some female directors to join his ranks, and get the recognition they too deserve.