With Big Eyes, against a backdrop of pure kitsch, Tim Burton delivers his most realistic, grounded and mature film of his career.

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Big Eyes (2014)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Delaney Raye, Krysten Ritter

Children of the 60’s and 70’s may remember the Big Eyes art (along with Gig’s Pity Kitties) that haunted many of our childhood rooms and somehow became part of our everyday landscape amid the decor and objects of those eras. Big, sad eyes just represented something about the 60’s and onward, as the 50’s clean, shiny post-war promises of prosperity and no more war for all faded out into dull reality. Of course, we had no context for this as kids. As children (and along with our mothers, who were also not immune) we were drawn to these works which, with perspective, now look rather startlingly horrific, especially as their mass production and ubiquity meant they adorned kids’ walls everywhere, providing some sort of nightmare fuel (which I usually blamed on my handmade clown, long thrown in the Goodwill bag while I live compatibly to this day with the Pity Kitty print of my early childhood that, bizarrely, comforts me while it fills my husband’s heart with horror).

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The time was ripe for a movie about the strange phenomenon of Walter and Margaret Keane and the Big Eyes paintings. It’s an original, interesting and suitably strange backstory, and it’s written well. It fits like a hand in glove in Tim Burton’s (lately, like so many films, CGI bloated) ouvre, and is, in fact, a triumphant, restrained return to form for the director we’ve loved more or less unconditionally since Edward Scissorhands. Or even, Beetlejuice. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sit this one out. The eyes, in this film, do the talking. It’s a glorious oddity, a true indie-type film, reminiscent of early, bold, amazing Miramax films (and produced by The Weinstein company) and a real wonder.

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Amy Adams, who, it seems, really can do almost anything, finds a perfect space for her own brand of wide-eyed sweetness here as artist Margaret Keane, a struggling single mother of a daughter, Jane. The two set out to San Francisco in the late 50’s, at a time when divorce is highly frowned upon (a man interviewing her for a job asks if her “husband” minds her working.  Margaret soon meets Walter (Christoph Waltz) at an outdoor art fair where both are selling their work. While Margaret is shy and rather timid (getting talked down from $2.00 to $1.00 for a custom sketch of a child which she renders beautifully) Walter is a consummate big talker and salesman; ladies seem to flock to him; he’s both slick and disarmingly forward in a way that Margaret reads as romantic initially, but has some red flags when she gets to know him. They marry in a whirlwind in Hawaii, so the getting to know each other part comes later on, and, over time, shakes Margaret to a very believable and moving point of near-constant anxiety, worry, and subtle relationship domination. Amy plays the role with subtly and class- drawing us in with just those big blue eyes of hers; the pull of her ever-present cigarettes, the shaky wrist of what becomes a necessary day-drink, the well-coiffed white blonde pouf of hair that glosses over, in perfect early 60’s style, the strain and the turmoil under the surface. Burton finds a touchstone in Margaret Keane, giving her characterization and screen time all the empathy and affection as his early heroes: Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. This gentle touch is needed, as Waltz does his signature big acting, which is said to still be understated compared to some of the behaviour of the real Walter Keane.

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This is not a dark film, though, in tone or art direction. Where Tim Burton’s usual realm includes entirely fantastical (and lately, with far too much green screen for me) interiors and exteriors, Big Eyes was made as a reassuringly lower-budget studio film ($10,000,000). It delivers the true creativity and tangible on-screen world that is grounded in delicious pastels and sun drenched interiors contrasted with Margaret’s little attic studio (picture above) that becomes a subtly claustrophobic space of darker fairy tales, as she sits surrounded by those unsettling Big Eyes that she’s compelled to paint in her “waifs”: children and animals, each one sad, yearning, vulnerable and a bit scarred. Margaret’s husband, a wonderful salesman who must be credited for generating great wealth for them both, takes credit for Margaret’s work in a ludicrous turn of (true) events that sees her start to disappear as another set of sad eyes on a crowded gallery wall. Because the work is never seen as serious art by critics, it seems no one gives it a serious look to note that the pieces are quite obviously out of the mind of a woman/girl, feminine and somewhat repressed/oppressed. What sort of man would grab at a claim that he was the creator of work that, even in a surface reading, suggests a strange preoccupation with young children? The film turns on this question (it’s more WTF than creepy and results in a very funny, insane and satisfying court scene).

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The story unfolds seamlessly and at a good pace. This is both a popcorn film (for those who like their popcorn with a realistic story) and a film about art, ownership, identity and marriage. Where it could have descended into Camp, disturbing darkness, or become fantastical, Burton uses a lovely restraint, letting those Big Eyes (the many works shown in the film, as well as those of Adams and her daughter, played and cast to perfection by Delaney Raye) tell the story in a straightforward and low-key way. Burton knows that the story is interesting enough without fantasy, allowing himself just one dream sequence that really works, and adapting his love of all things Gothic into its inverse. This sun-drenched world is not all that it seems; a big, beautiful, impeccably decorated dream house can still be a deeply lonely, unhappy place full of secrets. Where the film might have hammered its messages as bluntly and incessantly as Walter berates Margaret into an impossible house of cards that she somehow endures for years, instead it tells a good story with a lighter touch than so many biopics, with humour and irony and stellar supporting performances.

Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s best work since the elegant, game changing and endlessly original Ed Wood (1994) a film in which Burton struck a perfect balance of creative expression, a top-tier script, a wholly original idea, and with a subject matter that was clearly deeply resonant for the director, resulting in a rare masterpiece of filmmaking. Big Eyes deals with a subject matter that is a bit obscure for the mainstream and a bit of a departure from “Tim Burton films” as we’ve come to know them: it challenges his most devoted fans to see the same beauty in sun-dappled weirdness and curtains drawn to hide a secret as in the gothic realm. Yet by side stepping expectations it’s a welcome real return to indie form.

Big Eyes is a must see for all of who loved Edward Scissorhands when that was something so strange, and so new, that it changed everything for us. In fact, the era of the film and its setting is beautifully rendered in every frame from sets to props to cinematography, reminiscent of the candy-coloured world that Edward falls into in that film, in the best way. It reminds us of that glorious time in 1990 when Burton made Kitsch cool as hell, mixed up like no one else ever had before with a gorgeous helping of Robert Smith’s amazing hair (which Burton and Edward both wore to perfection) when Johnny Depp was an unknown, hungry actor, when the outsider filmmaker and his odd heroes made their mark on the mainstream and when Alternative ruled the cinema and the charts. It will take you all the way back. By Step On Magazine Editors

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