The reaction to this film was pretty consistent; it’s not bad but it’s not great and set your expectations pretty low. Maybe that’s why I didn’t hate this. I went in expecting to see a film that was, for lack of a better word, terrible and what I got was a film that was, not great but surprisingly good. I have issues with certain aspects of this, but overall this was not the complete letdown that I was expecting.
This isn’t an awards movie, which is probably why it suffered at the hands of critics and audiences, who expected it to be just that, but it’s a very good biopic that tells a very interesting story.
‘Big Eyes’ tells the story of Margaret Keane, a talented woman who starts her journey by leaving her domineering husband, taking her daughter by the hand, and falling into the arms of a con artist posing as a successful painter. Walter Keane knows how to spin a tall tale, how to attract attention and how to manipulate your affections, and because of his persuasive nature he was able to latch onto Margaret in an attempt to exploit her for her talent. Unbeknownst to Margaret, her husband began selling her work, passing it off as his own, and convinced her that no one would by woman’s work, and so he flexed his mental muscle in a way to oppress her, control her and use her. Pulled into his lies, Margaret becomes a pawn and eventually loses all ability to speak for herself, going so far as to lie to her own daughter, who knew the truth in her heart, trying to convince everyone that Walter was the true artist.
But despite the obsessive fame that was launched because of the sight of those ‘big eyes’, Keane’s work was not without naysayers, and when those naysayers got to Walter’s ego, he snapped, and Margaret fled.
And here is where Keane’s story takes on an interesting turn, and a turn that I was actually pleasantly surprised to see Tim Burton handle so well. You see, years after separating from Walter, Margaret was approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses and it was because of their influence that she finally gained the courage to tell the truth about her story, to take back what was hers and set the record straight. I’ve known this about Keane for a long time. I’ve grown up around the Witnesses, and I’ve read Keane’s story and when it was announced that the film was going to be made, I was highly doubtful that this truth would even be mentioned. I was certain that it would be omitted, but I was really shocked to see that Burton not only kept it in but made it a central plot point and addressed it with respect and not mockery.
Despite appreciating this particular approach, I have to admit that Burton’s direction here is the real reason the film doesn’t work entirely. His tonal approach is so uneven that the film becomes uncomfortable in parts, and the film needed some serious editing. The whole first two thirds becomes increasingly more and more repetitive and there are too many moments that carry a pivotal heightened atmosphere that feel as though they are going to provide a catalyst, a turn in the story, but they don’t and they just continue forward on the same trajectory. The first half of the film is just too long. The ensemble is overall quite fine, but no one is particularly good. Adams does a fine job but isn’t given anything really strong to work with, as Margaret is played quite tonally flat. Walter is played to the hilt by Waltz who steals every scene, but not really in a good way. If you’ve seen video of the real Walter, you’d know that he was a showman and a ham, but Waltz is just pigeonholing himself so much as of late that I fear for where his career is headed.
Everyone else is just there.
The sets, the costumes, the music; it’s all nice and works well. I just wish that Burton has decided whether or not he wanted to make this film impactful or lightweight, because the in-between leaves this film feeling inconsistent. I just get the impression that Burton had no idea what he wanted to do with this story. He has made it clear that he is fascinated with her story and is in love with her work, but he allowed his own passion for her as a person to cloud his judgement as a filmmaker, I believe.
So, my final verdict is that this is a rather compelling story told adequately but that had more promise and could have used the guidance of a director who understood his own vision.