Tuesday, 17 March 2015


Roadshow Films

"It is my name!" cries a defiant John Proctor at a pivotal moment in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, Proctor refuses to sign his name to a guilty confession, one which is a lie: he's prepared to die for the truth.

The stakes weren't quite as life and death for Margaret Keane, which may be one reason why she surrendered her name so easily. The San Francisco-based artist agreed to live a decade-long lie by allowing her second husband, Walter Keane, to claim ownership her iconic works: paintings of big-eyed, waif-ish children.

All of this came to light in a 1960s trial after the marriage between artist and con artist had disintegrated, and it is this relationship which is the focus Big Eyes, Tim Burton's surprisingly prosaic re-telling of one of the great art hoaxes of the 20th century.

Working from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who penned Burton's delightful 1994 film, Ed Wood), Big Eyes is Burton's most straight-forward and dramatic film, well, ever. And it would seem that without his usual smatterings of the gothic and the macabre (nor regular accomplices, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter), the director is at a loss to inject any life into proceedings.

That doesn't stop Christoph Waltz as the gregarious Walter from chewing scenery like a gourmand who just ended a two-week juice cleanse, in a performance which overshadows if not outshines the solid (though not award-worthy) work being done by Amy Adams as Margaret Keane. Blonde but not mousy, Margaret, whose already abandoned one marriage, knows what she wants.

But one of the big problems with Big Eyes is that it's never fully explained why Margaret agreed to go along with the lie, and for so long. Money was an obvious factor: the Keanes were raking it in when the 'Big Eyes' works went from gallery art to kitsch sensation; the creepy-sad images appearing on all manner of printed matter and selling as fast as they could be produced.

There's also Walter's charismatic/bullying nature and the inherent patriarchal sexism of 1960s America, but none of this is explored in any meaningful way. Margaret agrees to the lie and spends the rest of the film biting her tongue, and her bottom lip in consternation.

In some ways Big Eyes mirrors Ed Wood. That earlier film is about an artist -- Edward D. Wood Jr. made B-films in the 1950s -- whose ambitions well exceeded his grasp (and talents); he's often credited with directing "the worst film ever made", Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). And Walter Keane is a similarly ambitious yet talentless man. He wants so much to be an artist, a success and a respected man, that he begins to believe the lies he's constructed.

That then begs the question: aren't Burton and his writers then committing another disservice to Margaret Keane, by making her husband the centre of attention? Margaret may have walked from an Hawaiian courtroom victorious and with her artistic authorship reinstated, but whose story is really being told?

Perhaps Keane would have been better served if Burton (apparently an avid collector of her work) had let the artist speak for herself, and a little more loudly

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