Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
Genre: Biographical drama
Website for gallery http://www.margaretkeane.com/gallery.htm
In theatres now
Anyone who came up in the 60’s knows Margaret Keane’s work only too well. Her sad eyed waifs and pets led a kitschy trend that overwhelmed the era. Her work is at once maudlin, sentimental and creepy and yet somehow fascinating. The manipulative scenarios in which her little wounded beauties dwell are fields of flowers, exotic jungles, in bodies of water with rainbows slashing through them. They are strangely childish yet world weary. The art cognoscenti dismissed her work but ultimately were forced to admit it was popular.
Keane’s story is pretty strange too as we discover in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. Keane (Adams) was a single mother and struggling artist in San Francisco who fell for and married Walter another artist – slash – ladies’ man (Christoph Waltz) in 1955. Her work caught on while Walter’s went nowhere, but it turns out he had a genius for marketing and soon he had her pictures flying off the shelves. Margaret allowed him to claim the paintings as his own, leaving her to work in secret – even from her daughter – while he got all the huzzahs.
Margaret and Walter’s marital and professional lives, and ultimate breakdown are perfectly “Burton”ized. The story plays out in his sweet spot that is surreal and candy-coloured, in which Walter’s increasingly outlandish behaviours are even more monstrous. Their brightly lit suburban two split is beautiful and menacing with him in it.
Of course, it’s not a spoiler to say things end up in court where Walter’s desperation and a fake sore shoulder underscore his mental imbalance and idiocy. Walter the Big Man on Campus and Margaret the Little Mouse who does what she’s told find who the real boss is.
It’s an incredible feminist journey and via his manipulation of the medium and our complicity transforms a domestic thriller into a work of art about art.
Amy Adam and Christoph Waltz give bravura performances with equal but opposite colours. He’s brash and narcissistic, falling into mania while she’s warm, but somewhat reserved as she gathers strength. They are stunning to watch as the balance of power shifts; their emotional journey reads as dance.
Big Eyes is a gem and a tad off the beaten track. It an unconventional interpretation of a love story in which the performances make an unbelievable true life story especially piquant. It’s modern fairy tale in which her dreams and his nightmares co-exist. Burton’s total commitment to making art of everyday life is astonishing; this is his best film in years. I don’t remember being as deeply invested in a Burton film since Edward Scissorhands.
Margaret Keane is still alive and painting in Hawaii. At 88, she continues to do what she loves.