Big Eyes review

With narration from gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) neatly providing a little exposition, Big Eyes opens with an easy glide into its 1950s setting, and the introduction of our protagonist, Margaret (Amy Adams). Margaret has packed up her stuff, and with her daughter in tow is leaving her husband – not something, the voiceover tells us, that was common at the time.

Margaret tries to start a new life in San Fransisco, taking a job painting furniture, but she doesn’t seem to be adapting well, and when her ex-husband threatens to sue for custody she accepts a marriage proposal from the excessively charming Walter Keane, a fellow aspiring painter and successful realtor. Christoph Waltz is superb as Walter, a charmer, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sucking in not just Margaret but the audience as well with his bravado and wide grin.

This is all set-up for for the main event, wherein Walter becomes a renowned painter by taking credit for Magaret’s work, but it is in this opening act, and through its impact and effect, that the brilliance of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski‘s script is most clear.

The pair of writers, who previously collaborated with Big Eyes‘ director Tim Burton on the sublime Ed Wood, have perfectly set out both Margaret’s emotional state and her societal position for us. They’ve been well aided by an affecting performance from Adams, who displays just the right amount of timidity and naivety, particularly in the way in which she uses her eye lines with other characters to suggest a reluctance to take the lead.

All of this allows the story, which might be rather fantastical-seeming but is very much rooted in fact, to not stretch audience credulity. We understand why Margaret lets Walter take credit for her work, and even something of why she stays in an abusive relationship, despite her willingness to escape one previously.

Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton don’t shy away from the idea that Margaret was in some way complicit in the lie that fooled the art world and the public at large, but crucially they also contextualize this, framing it within the patriarchy of the times and the personal trauma in Margaret’s life.

Whilst there are many fascinating ways in which Big Eyes can be read from a feminist point of view, the film is also very much about the world of art and the tug of war that often exists between art and commerce, something that Alexander and Karaszewski are no strangers to. You can listen to their Ed Wood commentary for comments on Problem Child for more on why.

Big Eyes opens with a quote from Andy Warhol.”It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Walter later comments that Warhol  stole his schtick, and the film often opens up some interesting conversations about what art actually is, and what makes art matter.

Terence Stamp appears a number of times as New York Times art critic John Canaday, including one scene in which he gives the most entertaining rejoinder to the accusation that critics are just failed creatives that I think I’ve ever heard. He despises the Keane “big eyed waifs,” but you get the sense that his elitist sneerings are not something Burton and co. are all that interested in. It’s the sincerity of Margaret’s work and her startling story that are ultimately what’s most significant, and it’s this that resonates most.

Big Eyes will be in US cinemas from 25th of December and UK cinemas one day later.