It’s Tim Burton without the magic, the monsters, or the murders. Not only that, there are no appearances, surprise or otherwise, from Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter. Instead, Big Eyes is a colourful cinematic canvass showcasing the true story of a painter who puts the “struggle” into “struggling artist”.
Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is an artist known for her portraits of children with large, sad eyes. Actually, to be accurate, her husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), is known for them. Margaret begins the movie fleeing one unhappy marriage to fall directly into the waiting arms of this charming, pleasant, ambitious liar. Walter convinces Margaret that the world isn’t interested in “lady art” and that a much larger profit can be made if he sold her paintings as his own creations. And he’s right, to a certain extent. Walter’s superior salesmanship brings home a profit juicy enough that Margaret regretfully goes along with the scheme. Together, artist and salesman amass a handsome fortune, encouraging Walter to present himself as a famous painter to everyone he meets, and forcing Margaret to lie to everyone she knows, retreating further into her prison cell of a studio.
The combination of Tim Burton’s creative instincts and the fact that this story revolves around art means that Big Eyes pays unusually close attention to colour. The 1950’s pallet of soft blues, turquoises, and baby pinks places Big Eyes on a clean, tame-looking canvass. But here colour plays a larger role in relation to character. After meeting Walter, Margaret slowly relinquishes her agency to his dominant personality and agrees, out of fear or weakness, to nearly every request he makes. Her wardrobe subtly reflects this. Coincidentally, whenever she stands up for herself or acts on her own desires, Margaret wears colour, but whenever her husband overpowers her, Margaret wears black with the occasional blank white. Meanwhile, Margaret’s friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), a proud, impulsive free spirit, never enters a scene in anything softer than navy blue or emerald green. The student in me smells a thesis in here somewhere…
In terms of character, lies are the foundation of Walter’s personality. Once the public starts to chip away at them he does a complete Jekyll and Hyde. He’s a layered character just like… well what do you know? Just like an oil painting. He appears charming and confident at first, but as soon as that smile starts to crack he goes from candle to house fire in a blink. It’s actually quite frightening. Christoph Waltz is excellent in a controlled, frantic, manipulative, delusional sort of way.
The white to his black, his perfect counterpart, is the meek, impressionable Margaret. Amy Adams balances powerlessness with desire, and you just can’t wait until that inevitable moment when she stands up to her captor/husband. Confronting Walter must feel like losing control over the Mixmaster: she wants to stop the whirring blades and the barrage of frosting but knows that sticking her hand in the frenzy may well cost her a hand. Standing back in shock and surrender is the least painful of her two options – in the short term, at least.
The artistry, obviously, is very intelligently planned, through and through. The secondary characters are a little plastic, maybe because so much intensity comes from Adams and Waltz. For some reason, at random moments, there is a narrator who treats us to a description of the blatantly obvious. It’s like having a guy stand over your shoulder at a gallery and explain what the painting is supposed to represent. This little feature is unnecessary, and takes away from the flow of the story. Aside from that, Big Eyes is a film about ownership, self-worth, and pride, and is an artistic 8/10.