Since his major breakthrough in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), Christophe Waltz has become the perpetual supporting actor accustomed to stealing the show. It was the case in Carnage (2011), Django Unchained (2012), and it may similarly turn out to be the case in this year’s upcoming Bond film, Spectre.
So it says a lot about co-star Amy Adams to say that he doesn’t quite manage this in Big Eyes. Not because his performance is any less effective than the aforementioned films – it is Adams who takes the spotlight from him with an understated yet enchanting one of her own. These are two leads whose talents prove more than a match for each other in Tim Burton’s biographical comedy-drama; arguably the director’s best work since his last ‘big’ film, Big Fish (2003).
For those unaware, Big Eyes tells the true story of Walter and Margaret Keane: their meeting, marriage and everything in between. It takes us on a sliding slope along with its female lead, whose passion for art is somewhat tempered by a responsibility to provide for her young daughter. To help satisfy this need she marries Walter. As he gradually convinces her to give him the credit for her paintings, she becomes a tragic figure, held captive by the cultural expectations of women in 1950s America.
Waltz is the more glamorous performer as charming plagiarist Walter Keane, whereas Adams appears the perfect casting choice for Margaret Keane; a woman visibly stifled by the era in which she lived but strong willed and smart enough to make you believe she’ll eventually rise above her perceived boundaries. Both give the sense of a certain something lurking underneath their exterior, and these secondary characteristics emerge over the course of the movie.
Burton’s wide-ranging colour palette is in full flow in the mise-en-scene, while Lana Del Rey’s contribution to the films soundtrack, with both its title song ‘Big Eyes’ and the accompanying ‘I Can Fly’, is equally haunting and hopeful. In fact such terms are appropriate for describing Big Eyes as a whole; it has its fair share of dread in certain scenes, but ultimately feels like a light-hearted, hopeful piece reminiscent of some of Burton’s earlier work.
This juxtaposition is shown best in Keane’s art – the large, black, all-knowing eyes on the innocent faces of the children she draws. Looking into them, it’s not hard to see why Burton was attracted to this particular project. Its characters appear on the surface to be larger than life, but when this is stripped away you see they do have a heart, and it’s not always a kind one.
Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp also have small but memorable roles, the former as an art collector unconvinced by Keane’s work and the latter as a hard-nosed critic. Despite a lack of screen time, their entertaining portrayals help add to the undercurrent of stylish charm running through Big Eyes’ veins.
Both a touching true story and a film about artistic integrity, at times hilarious and at times sinister, Burton’s latest film is equally one of his most realistic and one of his most imaginative – a trait owed partly to the curious tale on which it is based, and the two leads who carry it.
9 / 10