Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s attempt at “ordinary”, but thankfully he still succeeds in injecting the film with the usual zest of kitsch and quirk that make his films so recognisable. The comedy-drama biopic follows Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her exploitative husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who fraudulently assumed credit for her life’s work: paintings of disproportioned, “big eyed” children.
Many critics have claimed that the film diverges from Burton’s trademark style and tropes, but the similarities are there if you are familiar with his work. Big Eyes opens with various shots of machinery, accompanied by a zany score which can instantly, and correctly, be attributed to Danny Elfman, a Burton “flick tick” from the checklist. This opening conforms to a formula that is recognisably Burton’s, mimicking the openings to two of his more famous works: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). The next sequence shows Keane and her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) as they flee her abusive first husband, leaving their home in the suburbs. Again, the eerie pastel colours and boxed layout of the houses are reminiscent of the suburban setting of Edward Scissorhands, striking off another block in Burton bingo. But this is as far as the director’s clichés go. Ninety seconds in and we are in new film territory. With shots of the misty Golden Gate Bridge ahead of us, Keane and the film are heading towards a new setting: a ‘real’ city setting, unusual for Burton, as he ventures far from Gotham and Wonderland to the streets of the American Pacific.
It is here, in this idyllic city, that Keane meets her future husband Walter, and considering that the couple are played by two of the best contemporary actors, the supposedly “loving” (at least initially) married couple have remarkably little chemistry. Adams is slightly more convincing as the naïve wife whose heart is ultimately broken, whereas Waltz’s romantic portrayal is somewhat more ambiguous, considering his romantic indiscretions. Sadly, these performances are not convincing enough to secure the audience’s emotional investment, and so the relationship’s conclusion is lacking in impact.
While this material all seems very standard and un-Burton, there is still plenty of his other-worldly originality to enjoy. Two scenes in particular are visually stunning, and credit must go to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, a previous Burton collaborator. In the first, a restaurant interior in San Francisco is filmed seamlessly through a fish tank, causing it to look like the fish are floating among the customers. The second shows Jane in a swimming pool reflected in the window Keane is standing behind, as though she is superimposed next to her. It is shots like these which make this Burton flick so refreshing, as he mixes unexpected “normality” with the style and quirk he is loved for.
However, it’s not just the style he is interchanging, but the themes of the film. Yes, like Alice in Wonderland (2010) it is a critique of patriarchal restrictions, although in a much more seriously handled and focused fashion. But its take on nostalgia and the past differs from his previous work. The time setting works well, as the Beat generation of the 1950/60’s is associated with liberation, as well as the rose-tinted glasses of a more sentimental time. But Burton exposes it as exploitative and misogynistic. In the film Keane is abused by two different men, both of whom she was married to. She is exploited not because of her naivety or her artistic gift, but simply because she is female. This time of liberation is not the evil modernity that threatens the Maitland’s peace in Beetlejuice (1988), but a positive change in every aspect, for which Burton should be commended.