★★★ | Big Eyes

In a rather radical departure from his last few very edgy movies acclaimed director Tim Burton has opted to make a biopic about Walter Keane the infamous plagiarist who in the 1950s claimed that his wife’s populist art was his own work. It’s a colourful lightweight drama that never gets dark even when Keane’s trickery is exposed, thanks mainly to the entertaining performances of its stars Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams.

The movie opens with a blond-wigged Margaret Ulbrich leaving her unseen husband and taking just Jane her young daughter, a suitcase and a handful of her artwork. Her destination is San Francisco’s new trendy hotspot North Beach but getting a job as a newly single mother is not easy and so she supplements her income at the furniture factory where she works by setting up shop at an outdoor art fair. Her signature style of painting forlorn looking children with enormous soulful eyes doesn’t attract many sales but it does attract the attention of the garrulous older man in the next booth who is pitching his pictures of street scenes of Paris.

A compulsive womaniser, Walter Keane turns on the charm for Margaret and she, still feeling vulnerable and lonely after her recent separation, agrees to go out on a date with him. The couple hardly know other when Margaret receives a letter from her husband’s lawyer threatening to sue for custody of their child, and so she accepts Walter’s spontaneous marriage proposal to safeguard her chances of holding onto Jane.

After they return from a romantic wedding and honeymoon in Hawaii, Walter starts hawking their art around town and despite the fact he is a sharp fast-talking salesman, the best deal he can come up with is renting a couple of walls in a Jazz club to display their work. His Montmartre street scenes are totally overlooked but when the club patrons spot Margaret’s soulful eyed children and want to buy them all, he claims that they are all his own work too.

Margaret is somewhat infatuated with her new husband who she credits with giving her a new lease of life, so when she discovers the lie she goes along it. She is persuaded by Walter that having a man as the artist, is the only way to successful sell the art. He also manages to charm everyone into helping him make this new venture so successful including the San Francisco Examiner reporter Dick Nolan who plants stories about Walter and the art in his newspaper’s society pages.

As their success explodes all Margaret has to do is stay at home and churn out more paintings in complete secrecy as even Jane, now a teenager, must not be allowed to know the truth. When Walter hits on the notion of printing cheap poster copies of Margaret’s kitsch art the public cannot enough of them, and one of the very few dissenting voices is that of the New York Times Art Critic John Canady who denounces them to the world.

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When his sheer greed turns Walter into a real menace, then Margaret finally packs up her suitcases once again and flees with her daughter, but this time to Hawaii. It takes Walter a year to track her down and when he calls her bluff about exposing him as a fraud, she finally goes public with the fact that she is the real artist. A supremely over-confident Walter immediately denounces these claims in the Examiner, but for once he has misread Margaret who is no longer frightened of him, and so she promptly sues him and the newspaper for slander.

The judge clears the newspaper of any liability at the Trial but when the rest of the proceedings degenerate into a public squabble between the couple, he deems the only way to resolve the true authorship of the Art is that both of the Keanes paint a picture there and then.

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The chemistry between Waltz as the obnoxiously charming con-man and Adams as the pretty put-upon vulnerable Margaret with her fine Christian morals is what makes this story seem so believable even when it’s hard to even begin to conceive that all this appalling art could have resulted in amassing such a fortune. Burton makes this adaption of this true story an incisive commentary on how early 1960’s society even in a consumer-driven California still had these impenetrable expectations of what women could do.

This easy going movie will hardly rank as one of director Burton’s best but it is reasonably entertaining and easy on the eye and to that end we should give credit to the design team for the locations, the sets and costumes that were all so perfect down to the last detail.

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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