Big Eyes, 2014.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter and Terence Stamp.
A drama about the awakening of the 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.
What are expectations if not there to be subverted? Many of our favourite film makers’ work comes with expectations (rightly or wrongly) of how their films will look and a standard to which they should be held, but throughout the work of Tim Burton has come a figurative checklist from which the director has formed the foundations of a highly successful career. Visuals styles influenced from German Expressionism and quirky or downright weird characters, paired with a fondness for miniature and model work and exceptional set design have helped create the term ‘Burtonesque’ which can been used both affectionately and damningly to describe every one of his films from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure through to his previous effort Dark Shadows.
Burton is a film maker I admire greatly, his style is unmistakable and often imitated but never bettered, but the past 15 years, from his Planet of the Apes remake onwards, has seen Burton fall into what I would describe as ‘safe’ or ‘lazy’ career choices, depending on the film in question. That’s not to say his work has not entertained for those years, I enjoyed Sweeney Todd and Frankenweenie quite a bit and even Dark Shadows and Big Fish were enjoyable if familiar fare, but nothing has captured the imagination like a Batman or Beetlejuice or Sleepy Hollow for far too long.
Big Eyes, his seventeenth film as director, does nothing to show the Burton spark which was so evident in his earlier career, but it does defy expectations of what to expect from a Tim Burton film and that is a major win for a director who was almost becoming a parody of himself. There’s not a weird, gothic character in sight nor is there a scary looking mansion, nor is the film set predominantly at night, and Johnny Depp isn’t anywhere to be seen. In his most straightforward and least fantastical story since Ed Wood twenty years ago, Burton’s filmic techniques are almost unrecognisable and that is not a bad thing because he shows he can adapt and tell a relatively simple story in a simple, controlled style. Not burdening himself with the need to use all $150 million or more of a studio budget with expectations of box office revenue, Big Eyes unfolds at a leisurely, calm and patient pace where his actors are allowed (at last!) to show a range beyond pantomime theatrics.
Perhaps it’s the true story angle and the fact that Margaret Keane, the film’s main character, is still alive that Burton decided to make the film, knowing he should keep the darkness to a minimum and shoot on real streets rather than elaborate sets and force his hand to make a film unlike anything he has made to date. Perhaps he wanted to work with a different cast and crew; a first film with the wonderful Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz and only the second collaboration with DOP Bruno Delbonnel, whilst giving his long-term Costume Designer Colleen Atwood something different to get creative with. I don’t know the reasons but whatever they were I applaud them because Burton has made his first film, rather than product, for a decade.
As for the qualities of the film itself; it depicts the true story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her bullying, narcissistic and deluded husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) with a breezy tone, never getting too serious or dramatic which is true of Danny Elfman’s fantastic score, too. Burton keeps the Big Eye paintings in almost every scene, giving the film its one true Burtonesque feature as expressionism and surreal images are the basis of Keane’s talent; not much for Burton and his creative team to worry about. Keane herself, in Burton’s vision, is like Edward Scissorhands minus the obvious differences; she is kept hidden away from the world, made to work in confined spaces where no one will see her true abilities. As a woman her art won’t sell, so she must pretend to be that which she is not.
Big Eyes will not be remembered long in the Tim Burton oeuvre, perhaps seen as an outcast like many of his characters; but that does not mean it is not a perfectly enjoyable film with two fantastically charismatic lead performances and another perfect score to enjoy from Danny Elfman. Not every film has to meet the lofty heights of Ed Wood to be considered a commendable effort and after a string of creative misfires or the overwhelming sense of a tired formula done to death, Big Eyes arrives with arms wide open.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.