Big Eyes (2014)

Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzmann, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp

Directed by: Tim Burton

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes

Now Tim Burton is a man who knows a thing or two about having a personal artistic style that's on the one hand acclaimed as genius and on the other derided as kitsch. Small wonder then, that he was drawn to the story of Margaret Keane, whose haunted, slender, bug-eyed waifs became an artistic sensation in the 1960s – a sensation for which her wannabe painter husband Walter took all the credit. So while his wife suffocated in her attic studio, churning out a progression of canvases depicting children as sad and lonely as she, Walter schmoozed with celebrities, flirted with clients, poured abuse on sceptical art critics and raked in populist adulation along with the cash.

And just as Walter steals Margaret's work, so Christoph Waltz steals the show entirely from under co-star Amy Adam's nose: his Keane is flamboyant, combative and self-aggrandising, a rampantly egotistical marketing genius in the style of Andy Warhol, while Margaret is quiet, passive-aggressive and self-effacing. A pushover, in fact.

Yet it's odd that this film, which is at heart all about art as personal expression, should be perhaps the least Tim Burtonesque film the infamously quirky director has ever made. Aside from a couple of trademark creepy moments when Margaret, nagged by guilt and bitter with dissatisfaction, sees her big eyes projected onto the people around her, the film is played very straight, an almost by-the-numbers linear biopic.

Is Burton's new, calmer, 'normal' style his way of paying tribute to her quiet, kitsch genius? By reining himself in, refusing to stamp his trademark weirdness all over her narrow, secretive life, is he paying Margaret the compliment her husband never could, by letting her speak for herself?

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

And yet... well, it doesn't appear she has a great deal to say. While in Burton's Ed Wood, another biopic about a committed artist of dubious reputation (and also scripted by Big Eyes' writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) , we really come to understand what drives the man dubbed 'the worst director in the world', here Margaret remains as blank and inscrutable as her lugubrious paintings, a figure we pity but cannot truly empathise with. Why, having escaped one bad marriage, does she immediately plunge into another with Keane, who, while certainly charming, is also quite clearly full of crap? And why when, manipulated by him into committing fraud, does she allow the lie to fester for over ten years? The answer seems to be: because she just does; because so much of her energy and passion is channelled into her paintings, she lacks the will to truly live away from her studio.

Certainly after the histrionic, self-indulgent excesses of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, this more restrained side to Burton comes as a welcome relief. And there's lots to love here: the picture perfect pastel styling, the sly digs at the pretensions of the commercial art world and a great, scenery-chewing performance from Waltz. But, like Margaret's art, it's all a bit superficial, failing to engage and move as Burton's early films do. If only its heart were as big as its eyes...

  • Share on Tumblr