In the late 1950s and early 1960s, painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) had reached success beyond belief, revolutionizing the commercialization of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The bizarre and shocking truth would eventually be discovered though: Walter's works were actually not created by him at all, but by his wife Margaret (Amy Adams). The Keanes, it seemed, had been living a colossal lie that had fooled the entire world. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
A lie, compliance and the windows to the soul are the elements of this extraordinary true story in which male domination and female repression play key roles. Enlisting his Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to pen the tale, Tim Burton lures us into a surreal reality in which art holds the key. Deception becomes a way of life for husband and wife team of Walter and Margaret Keane, when Walter steals the artistic recognition intended for Margaret. I would have liked a greater depth of personal insight into the workings of the marriage relationship and the tone might have been better contained, but the film is highly engrossing throughout, nurturing our amazement for human foibles. In other words, the story is better than the film, although there is much to recommend it nonetheless.
With her paintings in the trunk and her young daughter in the back seat, Margaret leaves her life in North California and first marriage in the film's opening sequence. It is 1958 and we quickly learn it is not easy for a woman to make a living in San Francisco, where she starts anew. Like Margaret, we are swept off our feet by the extravagant charm of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who begin their life together on a bed of romantic notions and artistic aspirations. He reflects nostalgically about his days studying art in Paris although it is his realtor success that pays the bills. His lack of talent is not about to halt his big plans.
Walter's innovative and creative salesmanship gets his Paris street scene paintings and Margaret's soulful portraits of children with oversized charcoal eyes hung - on a rented wall of a jazz club. Only Margaret's paintings with the stylised big eyes - modelled on her daughter Jane - are noticed, and become an overnight sensation, much to the horror of the outraged, serious art critic (Terence Stamp), who compares the artworks to a hula-hoop ('It won't go away'). It all begins with a little lie: Walter claims the paintings are his. Margaret's discomfort with Walter claiming credit for her work is immediately apparent, but intimidation in an era when women are suppressed, coupled with a priest's advice to trust her husband's judgment and to make the best of an imperfect situation, prompt her silent compliance.
One lie is a trigger for a thousand and as the lie deepens, the situation becomes increasingly intolerable, with Margaret an isolated prisoner of her own success. Not even her daughter can be told of the deception. Meanwhile, the success of the big eye paintings expands with reproductions and postcards that saturate the market.
Waltz is perfectly cast as the ever-charming salesman con artist, whose best moments come when Walter is put on the spot and asked about his artistic process and inspiration. With her expressive face and demeanour, Adams is effective as the intimidated Margaret, who comes into her own in the final reel, thanks to an unexpected door knock. Danny Huston plays newspaper columnist Dick Nolan, whose narration frames the narrative and Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur are well cast as daughter Jane at different ages, Arthur's physicality being especially effective.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's fascinating to discover that an item of what is essentially pop culture with which one was familiar some years ago has such a colourful history. The big eyed waifs that were ubiquitous in various shops - not art galleries - were the product of a single hand, and I always found them to be kitsch, repetitive and certainly not art, if art is something of lasting value. Neither did art critics such as the New York Times' John Canaday (Terence Stamp in immaculately haughty mode).
But this is not about art so much as about the two people who perpetrated a fraud on the public for financial gain but just as much for the gain in ego it provided. That they were husband and wife adds to the texture of the story, and the fact that Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was a fake, a complex, quite possibly neurotic, dual-personality wanna be artist without talent makes it ripe for a tragic kind of satire. Which is where Tim Burton goes with his direction, making Walter the subject of satire, even caricature.
To me this is a mistake; the basic elements of Walter's personality and the remarkable story of how the fraud came about are enough to be dealt with much more dryly. Of course, Waltz responds to Burton's direction in aces, with his penchant for hiding volcanic anger beneath charming smiles. Self important art dealer Ruben (Jason Schwartzman), who sneers at the big eyed paintings from his modern art gallery across the road, also gets a spray of satire.
Amy Adams is perfect as Margaret Keane, the one-trick-pony of the art world, to be both cruel and kind to her in one sentence. Adams has such an expressive face she need hardly speak. Her emotional, artistic, personal and legal journeys are easy to follow and understand - and empathise with. The story is notable for the fact that it was a product of the times: today, women artists in the US are accepted and taken seriously.
Danny Huston plays the columnist Dick Nolan, who also acts as something of a narrator, his urbane style aptly reflecting a time when columnists had style and substance (today that's an exception).
The screenplay tells the story with relish, perhaps too much so, another decision Burton could have avoided, at least for my taste.
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BIG EYES (M)
CAST: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzmen, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp
PRODUCER: Tim Burton, Scott Alexander, Lynette Howell, Larry Karaszewski
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
SCRIPT: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Bruno Delbonnel
EDITOR: JC Bond
MUSIC: Danny Elfman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Rick Heinrichs
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 19, 2014