Tim Burton’s latest offering eschews the weird and wonderful fantasy for which he is best known and concentrates instead on a ‘so weird it has to be true’ tale about bad art and flawed people. In many ways, this is Burton’s best work since Ed Wood, with which it shares some DNA – scriptwriter Scott Alexander worked on both movies.
The film opens in the late 1950’s and Burton has skilfully evoked the era in his own exaggerated, slightly surreal way. Amateur painter, Margaret (Amy Adams) has just run out on her husband, taking her young daughter Jane along with her for the ride. She finds work and in her spare time tries to sell her paintings, a series of (rather dodgy) portraits of big-eyed children. She soon encounters Walter Keane (Christophe Waltz) another wannabe artist and the two of them hit it off. Within weeks they are married. When Keane’s flair for publicity starts to kindle interest in Margaret’s art, he persuades her to let the world believe that he is actually their creator and to release them under the signature of ‘Keane.’ She reluctantly goes along with it. But neither of them have realised quite how successful Margaret’s paintings will become. As the millions begin to roll in, Margaret finds herself increasingly tortured by the deceit that they have created; and the desire to be recognised as an artist. When the marriage starts to founder, it’s clear that one way or another, the truth will have to come out.
This is an intimate, small scale story that gets to the heart of the thorny subject of intellectual property. Adams and Waltz are both superb in their roles (Waltz has some particularly funny scenes, particularly in the courtroom drama at the film’s conclusion) and Burton is always better, I think, when his creative juices are reined in and he works with somebody else’s script. (Like many critics, I feel he’s lost his way lately – Alice In Wonderland was a particular disappointment, even though it racked up huge receipts at the box office.) Big Eyes however, is an excellent film and one that stands with his best work.