Big Eyes (2014)    2 Stars

“A true story about art and the art of deception.”

Big Eyes (2014)
Big Eyes (2014)


Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston

Synopsis: A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

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The quote from Andy Warhol – ‘It must be good art because so many people like it’ – which opens Tim Burton’s biopic of pop artist Margaret Keane suggests that Big Eyes is going to explore the question of what constitutes a work of art. But the film itself is built around the more quantifiable reality of women’s subordinate position to men in the 1950s and therefore treads a more conventional path than one might expect from a quirky director like Burton.

She probably isn’t so well-known today, but back in the 1960s prints of Margaret Keane’s melancholic children with disproportionately large, doe-like eyes sold in their millions, thanks largely to the creative salesmanship of her husband – and unsuccessful artist – Walter. But Walter also took credit for the painting, claiming he drew inspiration from memories of the orphaned children he encountered in post-War Europe. Initially persuaded by her husband that her work wouldn’t sell as well if people thought they were painted by a ‘lady painter,’ Margaret finds herself trapped in a lie which sees her husband basking in the media spotlight while she toils away in an attic, her art becoming a guilty secret which she must hide even from her teenage daughter. Perhaps inevitably, Margaret’s resentment of the deceit manufactured by her husband grows in proportion to the growing popularity of her paintings and his increasingly erratic and domineering behaviour. When she finally comes clean, though, her now estranged husband sues her for slander…

The problem with biopics – particularly ones based largely on information from a single source – is that we only hear one side of the story. Burton commissioned Keane to paint a picture back in the 1990s, and has been a collector of her work ever since. She even appears in the movie, so he’s clearly a fan. And, although Walter Keane is never portrayed as a deliberately cruel or evil man, there’s no room for ambiguity in Big Eyes. That doesn’t necessarily mean Burton’s version of events is inaccurate, but the suspicion that the account isn’t entirely unbiased is always there.

Amy Adams (Man of Steel, American Hustle) plays Margaret Keane as a shy, gentle woman who is perhaps a little too easily manoeuvred by her husband, and the rampant sexism in 1950s American society is offered as the tool with which he manipulates her. Although she is excellent in the part, the diffident nature of Adam’s character means her performance is largely overshadowed by that of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) as Walter. Waltz possesses features more suited to comedy than drama but has a remarkable talent for tainting his smiley good-nature with a touch of menace that hints at an incipient madness quietly bubbling away behind the surface. Keane’s somewhat buffoonish exterior hides a simmering frustration at the lack of artistic skill that prevents him from realising his dream. In some ways, he’s Salieri to Keane’s Mozart – although on a much smaller scale, obviously – but there is little suggestion of deliberate malice in his actions until the unfortunate later scenes in which he’s depicted as both a buffoon and a drunken megalomaniac. There’s no denying that Keane did eventually lose the plot, and the near-farcical courtroom scenes are accurate (although they took place in the late 1980s), but Keane’s disintegration follows a too-familiar template which robs it of a sense of authenticity.

Big Eyes is an interesting watch, though, and a welcome return to form for Burton after a couple of duds. He reins in his quirkier tendencies – only one effective scene in which the shoppers and staff in a supermarket are all seen by Keane to be possessing the large, lambent eyes of her portraits harks back to his earlier work – and shoots Big Eyes in bold primary colours vaguely reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands, and imitative of the Pop Art culture in which the film takes place.

(Reviewed 26th September 2015)

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