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Movie review: Big Eyes

Roslyn Hull

A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.” imdb

A quiet, slightly odd but fascinating film.

Images of big eyed children were really the ultimate in kitsch in the ‘60s and ‘70s so my only knowledge of this work has been a cynical dismissal of the style and content.

Having seen the film I now have a lot of respect for Margaret Keane and her creations. That does not mean I like them any more than I did, I just feel more aware of their genesis and understand a little about why the art world was flooded with these images – to the point of debasing the originals completely.

The story, if not compelling, is involving enough for me to barely notice a couple of hours passing. It is not high drama but there is a veracity about this woman’s journey and her art that has me thinking about scenes and events days after watching it. Typically supressed and of her era she also has a fire (albeit damped down) and creative urgency that keeps me thinking about her.

Or at least about Amy Adams’ depiction of her. With not a lot of physical ‘business’ she manages to convey volumes with her own big eyes until there is a chance for that fire to spark.

Christoph Waltz is creepily effective as Margaret’s husband and long-term manipulator, Walter. However there does seem to be a bit more ham than needed in his performance – but isn’t there always? Apologies to any fans but I don’t completely understand why he keeps getting awards as I think he is about as subtle as a house brick through a plate window.

The two girls who portray Margaret’s daughter, Jane, have been cast for their eerie (and inspirational) eyes but offer colour and depth to the limited action. Jane was a witness to this enormous con and her presence in scenes is a strong reminder of this.

Jason Schwartzman and Kristen Ritter don’t get much chance to give depth to their performances as a gallery owner and Margaret’s best friend but I think their main purpose under the microscope of the plot is to provide a real world counterpoint to the Keane hothouse. Terence Stamp adds gravity to the few minutes of screen time he gets but I felt Danny Huston is underused as a journalist/narrator, unless he is just there to represent the cynicism of the times.

The look of the film is almost typical of the era but there is a stylistic overlay, particularly in the opening scene of utterly desolate suburbia and later in a supermarket, which elevates it above generic bio-drama. The biggest shock is the name of the director. This in not the sort of movie I would immediately associate with Tim Burton but he did make the wonderfully odd Ed Wood so I guess he has form.

There are lots of statistics on the internet – first live action without Johnny Depp or his wife, or both, in 19 years; also written by the same team that wrote Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski); Burton commissioned Margaret Keane to paint his previous girlfriend long before the film was broached; and on and on.

The only statistic audiences need to care about is whether this film hits the mark.

If you are curious about art history or the pop culture of the 20th century I would say it does.

Roslyn saw this film as a guest of Dendy Cinemas.


Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand. More about the Author

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