Film, OldVenue

Review: Big Eyes

Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton, is the stunning biopic of Margaret Keane whose husband, Walter, passed off her haunting paintings of big eyed children as his own for ten years. Although the initially brightly lit scenes and lurid colours are uncharacteristic of Burton, the film quickly slides into a darker filter and adopts the macabre edge more typical of his works. On first impression, the characters are charming and endearing but their personas quickly develop Burton’s idiosyncratic blend of quirky and sinister as the couple spiral into deception and degeneration. Unlike Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, which relied heavily upon fantastical worlds, wacky characters and, of course, Johnny Depp in outrageous amounts of make-up, this film focuses almost unflinchingly on the protagonists, offering a gritty take on the dark side of the human condition.
The madness in the film is pervasive and infectious and when Walter begins to lie to himself about his “masterpiece” and “reputation”, the audience is almost hoodwinked into believing that he is the actual artist, such is his self-deception. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this true story is the extent of Walter’s elaborate lies which not only result in Margaret’s emotional and psychological imprisonment, but also leads her to lying to the people around her. Walter’s cry that people should get Margaret “some psychiatric help”, ironically demonstrates his own delusion and mental decline. Bit by bit, Walter’s shiny façade crumbles to rubble – he is, as Margaret states, the true “Jeckyll and Hyde”. The divide between husband and wife best shown when Margaret, with her peroxide blonde hair and bright dresses, confronts the monochrome face of her husband on the TV, staring unflinchingly back at her as he spins his web of lies for the press.
Christoph Waltz is riveting in his portrayal of the manipulative, domineering Walter Keane, who slips insidiously from charisma and charm into mania and greed. Amy Adams is equally powerful as the humble genius, victimised by a sexist society and domineering husband, whose only true confidant is her fluffy white Chihuahua. Both actors have proved themselves as entirely worthy of their Golden Globe nominations. Lana Del Rey also received a Golden Globe nomination nod for her song Big Eyes which gives the film a haunting quality through her distinctive, melancholic voice, as indeed does Danny Elman’s atmospheric music which has become an inseparable ingredient of the Burton films over the years.
Margaret sacrifices all: her art, money, friends, even her name and identity, in order to survive and protect her daughter and in doing so wins the hearts of the audience as a fractured heroine who eventually finds enough courage to stand up to the world. Just as Margaret believes that the eyes are a “window into the soul”, so Tim Burton gives us a glimpse into the innermost nature of his characters through close-up shots of their eyes in mirrors or through keyholes. Margaret’s degeneration is bitterly and beautifully captured through people around her beginning to acquire enlarged eyes like her paintings, showing her retreat into imagination and descent into madness. The film is in that sense a single ‘big eye’, offering insight into the untold story of one of the greatest art scandals in history.


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December 2021
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