Released today on DVD, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014) stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane (née Ulbrich), a woman we first encounter on the brink of divorce. It’s the late 1950s and, with her daughter in tow, Margaret forsakes the colour-coded conformity of suburbia for a new life in the big city, painting furniture during the week and selling her own art at weekends. It’s at an art fair that she first meets Brian Keane, played by Christoph Waltz, a charming charismatic salesman full of the giddy enthusiasm of art, the happy amateur brimming over with his time on the Left Bank in Paris and vaguely ashamed of his day job as a successful realtor.
Brian’s Parisian street scenes are postcard picturesque, indistinguishable from a thousand others, but Margaret’s work is disturbingly other. The over-sized eyes stare out of her paintings, suggestive of both a Disney-like innocence and a more tormented terror of life. A romance between the two blossoms as Brian’s pushy ‘go get ’em’ attitude combines with Margaret’s idiosyncratic vision to carve out one of the more unlikely success stories of the 1960s art world. Unfortunately, due at first to a misunderstanding, Brian claims Margaret’s work as his own and as the paintings begin to sell a pact forms as Margaret produces the art and Brian fronts it as both the artist and salesman. Brian appears comfortable in weaving a story in which the big-eyed waifs begin to make sense, citing his view of post-war devastation
Yet, as time goes on and the art world looks on in distaste at the rampant commercialism (Terrence Stamp cameo as a Brian Sewell-esque art critic), the deal begins to sour, turning from a charming love story into a tale of manipulation, exploitation and the shadow of violence. Artists with unique visions teetering somewhere between kitsch and art, the parallels between Burton and Margaret are obvious. Both are commercially successful – Keane with her doe-eyed daubs and Burton with his goth-lite fairytales – but one suspects they also hanker after weightier reputations. A keen Keane collector, Burton places Margaret very much in his own universe. She’s an Edward Scissorhands in reverse, moving away from the pastels and perfect lawns of the suburbs and into the Bertha Mason-like attic. Every shot is sumptuous: a trip to the supermarket is a moving Warhol, the sunshine glitters and the lines and framing are drawn with precise care.
However, just like Keane’s paintings, there’s something flat and lifeless about the whole affair. Waltz is utterly unconvincing. He’s played this kind of scoundrel before and his garrulous gurning is becoming tiresome (this is one film in which he’s definitely not supposed to be European). Adams is fine as Margaret but there’s not enough spark in her own big eyed ingénue. Danny Houston has a cameo as a gossip columnist and the film’s narrator, along with Jason Schwartzman as a stuck up gallery owner and Jon Polito as a jazz club landlord who gives Brian his first break. But ultimately the film isn’t as good with people talking and moving as it’s with colours and composition. Burton has mined his passions before to make oblique autobiography as in 1994’s Ed Wood, one of his most successful films. Big Eyes, by comparison, is a slight affair, a curious true story that’s emotionally distant if gorgeous to look at.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty