If you're outside the US (as I am), you may not be familiar with the work of Walter Keane. In the late 1950s, his paintings of big-eyed waifs took the American art world by storm. The critics hated them, found them kitsch, but that didn't matter- the American public loved them. There's just one small problem: Walter didn't paint a single one of them. His wife, Margaret, painted them all and he passed them off as his own. The truth only came out years afterwards when Margaret took Walter to court. Now, the story of one of the art world's biggest frauds has come to the big screen in Big Eyes.
It's an intriguing little curio, a thoughtful, funny piece, made by two brilliant performances.
Amy Adams plays Margaret, firstly as a wide-eyed ingenue then world-weary and embattled. She's swept along by Walter, initially upset that he would take credit for her work, but then reluctantly buying into the lie as the paintings start to sell. Such is the power of Adams' performance that you never turn against Margaret for her complicity in the lie, nor are you ever left feeling frustrated or angry with her for staying (when others may have left sooner). It's not a showy performance, no look-at-me moments, but it anchors the entire film. It's yet another excellent performance by Adams who surely can't be too far from that Oscar win.
Christoph Waltz is perfectly cast as Walter, a wolfishly charming man. Even when he's being unpleasant or cutting to Margaret, he retains an air of this charm. There are moments of vulnerability, when this facade falls, and you almost feel for him. Almost. When things don't go Walter's way, he acts out like a petulant teenager. That's why he's never a serious threat. His outlandish claims that he could have Margaret 'taken care of' if she reveals the truth never ring true. It's bluster, pure and simple. The final scene in the courtroom is a masterclass of comic performance as Walter chooses to defend himself. In lesser hands, Walter could have been a cardboard cutout villain or even a cipher but Waltz' broad performance is a great counterpoint to Adams' calmer, more rational Margaret.
Other great supporting roles comes from Danny Huston as newspaper columnist Dick Nolan, who initially helps Walter's rise to fame and provides an arch narration at some points (making the point that the 1950s were good 'if you were a man'), Krysten Ritter is good as Margaret's friend DeeAnn, and there's a lovely arch cameo by Terence Stamp as art critic John Canaday who derides Keane's work. Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur give great performances as the younger and older versions of Margaret's daughter Jane who provides much-needed support for her mum. I'm often a bit wary of child performances in films, lest they come off as precocious or saccharine, but here, it works.
Larry Karaszewiski and Scott Alexander's script is tight, there's very little padding or anything that feels superfluous, and there's some lovely cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The film is directed by Tim Burton but this isn't your typical Tim Burton film, there are only minimal flourishes of whimsy (such as a scene where Margaret is in the supermarket and starts to visualise people with big eyes).
I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was quirky and interesting, and told a great story that I didn't know about. Well worth a watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5