A drama about the awakening of painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.
In San Francisco in the 1950s, Margaret was a woman trying to make it on her own after leaving her husband with only her daughter and her paintings. She meets gregarious ladies' man and fellow painter Walter Keane in a park while she was struggling to make an impact with her drawings of children with big eyes. The two quickly become a pair with outgoing Walter selling their paintings and quiet Margaret holed up at home painting even more children with big eyes. But Walter's actually selling her paintings as his own. A clash of financial success and critical failure soon sends Margaret reeling in her life of lies. With Walter still living the high life, Margaret's going to have to try making it on her own again and re-claiming her name and her paintings. Written by
According to the producers at the Los Angeles screening, the production budget was $60 million. See more »
An early scene shows Margaret and Walter painting a landscape in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts building. In the 1950s the Palace was a crumbling ruin, fenced off and not visible to the public. It was restored in the 1960s. See more »
The '50s were a grand time, if you were a man. I'm Dick Nolan. I make things up for a living - I'm a reporter.
[Margaret frantically packing things]
It's the strangest goddamn story that I ever covered. It started the day that Margaret Ulbrich walked out on her suffocating husband, long before it became the fashionable thing to do.
Come on, Janie.
[they get into the car]
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A competent, thoughtful drama from Tim Burton that could do with a little more of the director's trademark whimsy.
Tim Burton has crafted quite a reputation as a director of the surreal and the macabre. In his films, he conjures up dark, Gothic images of death and despair, but suffuses them with his special brand of bittersweet magic and whimsy. On the surface, Big Eyes is right up his alley - this true story of the fiercest and most outrageous copyright battle in art history centres on a series of big-eyed waifs, almost ghostly figures of hope and horror that fit perfectly into Burton's aesthetic. And yet, barring a few scenes, the final film is curiously characterless: a competently-made, shrewdly- cast biopic that never quite troubles the heart or spirit the way Burton's films can do.
Margaret (Amy Adams) is trying to scrape together a living for herself and her young daughter when she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic real-estate broker who would rather make a name for himself as an artist. He offers her a home, love and financial security, and she quite happily takes his surname as her own. Once they are married, Walter keeps trying to break into the notoriously snobby art world, selling his own Parisian landscapes and Margaret's portraits of wistful young girls with enormous eyes. But it's her art - simply signed as 'Keane' - that grabs the attention and, as one white lie leads to another, Margaret suddenly finds herself shoved into the background. Walter has taken credit for her work, and is well on his way to transforming it into a global phenomenon.
There are many big ideas swirling around in Big Eyes: art, deceit, integrity, commercialism and love are shaken liberally and stirred through with deeper issues of sexism and psychological abuse. This comes through pretty well in the film, which paints a chilling picture of Margaret's enforced anonymity. As her husband delights in dominating newpaper headlines and picking fights with famed art critics like John Canaday (Terence Stamp), she fades almost literally into the background - creating ever more pieces of art for him in the solitude of her attic studio, lying even to her daughter about her life's work. The film also draws a canny, subtle distinction between the artist and the businessman: Walter may not be much of the former, but his skills as the latter are what drag Margaret's work from county fairs onto the international stage.
Through it all, Burton exercises a light - almost impersonal - touch. He scatters a few scenes into the film that hint at his trademark film-making style: Margaret bumps into a crass supermarket display of her art, and suddenly everyone around her sports the limpid, haunting eyes of the waifs no one knows are hers. But, for the most part, Burton keeps himself out of the proceedings. It's proof that he can create nightmares on a more subtle and realistic level, capturing the darker side of life as it can be rather than as he imagines it. Occasionally, however, the film begs the question whether he should - it's stuffy and dry, never quite engaging either the heart or the imagination.
That's through no fault of his cast. Adams anchors Big Eyes with an astounding portrayal of a complex woman: one who's willing to cast off the chains of her first marriage, only to wind up tangled in the snare of another. It would be easy to play Margaret as a victim, but Adams finds the bitter strength in someone who must endure untold torment in a world and home that constantly remind her she's too weak to succeed on her own. Waltz's performance, on the other hand, is puzzling - he plays Walter in the constant key of manic, right from the start, so that the character's smooth, smug charm is all you ever see of the man. There is something undeniably delicious, though, about Waltz's Walter when the cracks begin to show: he simmers his way into a kind of monstrous madness, which lends both drama and humour to the proceedings when Margaret finally brings her claim to court.
On the evidence of Big Eyes, there's hope yet for Burton if he would like to switch to making more literal films. He unearths plenty of smart, insightful tension in this troubled marriage, a partnership on unequal terms that becomes less emotional and more financial by the day. But the film also stumbles along at points, bled dry when it should radiate colour and emotion. It's hard to shake the feeling, too, that Waltz seems to be under the impression that he's in a more old-school, over-the-top Burton production. It's at these moments, in particular, that one might long for a splash of Burton's own personality - the chance to look at this world, this story and these people through his eyes.
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