The death of Tim Burton as a creative force has been greatly exaggerated. The hype surrounding Big Eyes is loaded with phrases like “return to form” and “best film in years”, which does a disservice to films like 2012’s wonderful Frankenweenie.
There’s no doubt, though, that Big Eyes is his biggest hit for a while. Far more straightforward than most of the director’s gothic oeuvre, it tells the strange true story of hobbyist painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a divorcee who remarries amateur artist Walter (Christoph Waltz). He discovers a knack for flogging her kitsch paintings of children with sad, disc-like eyes, but, unbeknownst to her, also takes credit for painting them. What starts as a white lie ends with a house-bound Margaret churning out “Big Eyed waifs” by the dozen while Walter becomes one of the most famous artists in America.
Waltz is brilliant, imbuing Walter with the sinister, pantomime-like quality of a Roald Dahl villain while maintaining a vestige of sympathy – after all, he’s the one who created the Big Eyes empire, right?
The cleverly ponders the nature of art and authorship – one pointed scene in a supermarket sees Margaret reach for a tin of Campbell’s soup before turning a corner only to be greeted by hundreds of prints of her own paintings.
Stylistically, Burton plays it pretty straight, the only real flourish being the real-life Big Eyes that Margaret hallucinates around her at the height of the deception.
Big Eyes is beautiful and thoughtful, a real slow burner that proves Burton still has it – not that it ever went away.
First published in City A.M.