mon 22/04/2024

Big Eyes | reviews, news & interviews

Big Eyes

Big Eyes

Tim Burton's latest leaves you, well, wide-eyed

Big eyes? Big lies are more like it: Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane in `Big Eyes'

The worlds of marital abuse and artistic fraud collide to eye-opening if also frustrating effect in Big Eyes, Tim Burton's film about the unmasking of an elaborate deception that ruptures a family along the way.

The film has would-be Oscar contender written all over it, not least in pairing five-time nominee Amy Adams alongside two-time winner Christoph Waltz, but for all that fascinates about the real-life story on view, its walk to the podium is likely to remain as much a fantasy as the claims of the central character, Walter Keane, to having been a great artist.  

In fact, the Nebraska-born Keane - who died in 2000 and is here played by Waltz (pictured below) - was a plagiarist and a sham, plain and simple, and on the evidence of Burton's film a hard-drinking psychotic, as well. But until he was unmasked in a trial scene that is admittedly funny even if you can see the mechanics of it coming a mile away, Keane took credit for the profligate and hugely lucrative output of pictures that were actually painted by his put-upon wife, Margaret (Adams). Their subject matter depicted doe-eyed young children possessed of enormous eyes, and American filmgoers may well be put in mind of the long-vanished comic strip, Dondi, about a large-eyed war orphan whose eyes in effect were his personality in much the same way as is onscreen here. 

Precisely why the shy if by no means stupid Margaret agreed to this deception until such time as she grabbed her daughter Jane and fled for a new life in Hawaii isn't explained by Burton or screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who collaborated on this director's wonderful Ed Wood 20 years ago. Presumably, Burton wants to say something about female empowerment, or lack thereof, in a previous generation that made it tough for women artists, not least when subject to the steamrolling charm and self-confidence exuded by Walter. But for much of the time, one wonders why Margaret hasn't bolted well before, notwithstanding the comforts allowed by the soaring interest in her art, commissions from Natalie Wood and Joan Crawford included and the sense, communicated in the film, of trumping even Andy Warhol in the art world fame game. For at least fifteen minutes. 

Our guide through this ever-peculiar episode is newspaper columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who is there to proffer commentary that presumably couldn't be incorporated any other way. Far pithier and more entertaining is a sceptical San Francisco curator (played by a wonderfully deadpan Jason Schwartzman). "Christ, it's a movement," he says as the Keane phenomenon gathers pace, though such perceptions pale next to the withering disregard of then-New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp), who dismisses Keane by saying "you just want him to go away." Canaday later gets a fork thrust dangerously near his eye by way of retaliation.  

Away from the bustling and glamorous world of openings and parties and San Francisco high society - hey, they get to hang with the Beach Boys! - all is not well in the two-acre, five-bedroom house with a pool that the Keanes are soon able to call home. In a detour toward florid horror-movie theatrics, Walter is soon throwing lit matches into his wife's studio, a domain off limits not just to visitors but even to her own daughter lest the sustained and elaborate deception be exposed. His face flush with an excitement that can turn rancid on a dime, Waltz half the time looks as if he's about to lapse into an impersonation of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The performance is engaging for about ten minutes and unbearable pretty consistently after that. 

Adams fares much better, not least due to the fact that the real Margaret Keane, now 87 and in seemingly excellent nick, is very much around, so must have provided a role model of sorts to Adams that was unavailable to her hapless co-star. (Adams is seen posing alongside Margaret Keane in a still near the very end.) One could do without moments like those at the start where big city newbie Margaret, upon expressing ignorance of this new drink known as espresso, is informed by her more sophisticated friend  (Krysten Ritter) that "you've got a lot to learn." But she looks at ease at the easel (one of Keane's paintings is pictured above), and in a film rife with thespian grandstanding and artistic subterfuge, it's nice to have someone front-and-centre who is the real thing.

Watch the trailer for Big Eyes overleaf. 

 


Christoph Waltz half the time looks as if he's about to lapse into an impersonation of Jack Nicholson in The Shining

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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