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No Depp, no problem: Tim Burton returns to form with fresh faces and Big Eyes

Back in the 1960s a young, big-eyed Tim Burton sat in his family home. He’d gaze upon the walls at the collection of surreal portraits from American painter Margaret Keane, captivated by their oil-brushed, saucer-like features. For years the world, Burton included, believed the paintings to be the work of her charming husband Walter. But it wasn’t until 1986 that, after years of internal abuse and exploitation, a hollowed Margaret, devoid of purpose, was revealed in a courtroom paint-off to be the true artist. It was a number of years later when Burton, now a celebrated filmmaker, rediscovered his Keane interest with the artist (sorry, couldn’t resist), and begun working on a biopic. After years on the backburner, having instead favoured several disappointing feature films, 2015 is finally the year Burton satisfies his insatiable itch to bring the Keane story to the big screen: the aptly-titled Big Eyes.

Outside of the Keane story, Big Eyes admirably explores issues of 20th century gender politics. As her paintings rise in popularity, Margaret is forced to bow to society and credit Walter as the artist – because, simply, “people don't buy lady art". Until the end of the story where a reinvigorated Margaret Ulbricht emerges triumphantly from the courtroom, freed from Walter by marriage and by name, the film’s archaic, gender-biased dialogue breeds an intentional feeling of uncomfortableness. It’s the initial catalyst for the Margaret/Walter dynamic and hugely important for the audience to consider, and here in its careful execution lies one of the film’s biggest strengths.

With no Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Christopher Lee or Jeffrey Jones, there’s a notable absence of Burton regulars. But for a director whose previously innovative efforts are becoming increasingly stagnant, fresh faces enable a much-needed brightness to filter in. Amy Adams’ brilliant performance as Margaret – handpicked for the role by the artist herself – is more than deserving of her Golden Globe win, while the perfectly cast Christoph Waltz applies his iconic malevolent composure to the film’s portrayal of Walter. Filled out by smaller performances from Danny Huston, John Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman and a frightening Terence Stamp, Big Eyes is not lacking in the acting department.

Sadly though, the movie does fall short in other areas. For one, Big Eyes seems intently driven by Walter and his psychopathic delusions, rather than Margaret’s arguably more attention-deserving inner conflicts. Walter has a persona paramount to the story, but this film’s depiction sucks the narrative out and away from Margaret. While he’s the perfect foil, in too heavily juxtaposing the couple’s personalities the Keane story becomes a relatively one-sided, distorted mess.

For another, the film skips over and fails to wring the most from key points in the story. Where most biopics are primarily based in fact and detail, through a Burton lens Big Eyes tries to coax us out of reality and into the world of fiction and fantasy. While there are a number of moments where this mismatch is palpable, its most glaring example lies in the final courtroom scene. After spending over an hour seeing Margaret belittled, beguiled and bullied by her husband, it’s slightly grating and perhaps unbefitting to watch the final scene play out like a comedy. It might not be Burton’s style to be completely serious or predictable, but as a biopic bereft of humour or clear direction up until this point, the decision to fill the film’s narrative climax with laughs seems an odd one.

After recent disappointments, the quaint, enjoyable Big Eyes provides Burton with a much-needed blank canvas – one that he is able to simultaneously use to appease his current slump and childhood fascinations. Save for darker, uncanny CGI-assisted scenes in which a drunk Walter terrorises his wife and in which Margaret hallucinates her paintings becoming a reality, the film is an intriguing change of pace from his usual work. Big Eyes’ aesthetic is of a starkly different palate, and the closest thing we have to a spectacular Burton monster is the Jekyll and Hyde Walter. It’s not quite the resurgence our inner teenagers may have hoped for, but it is a decent film which helps salvage parts of Burton’s dwindling reverence.

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