Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.
If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.
That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.
There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.
Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).
The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy. If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.