“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
– Helena in William Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Nights Dream
In the 50’s, Margaret Keane’s art met with phenomenal success. Her paintings of waifish “big eyes” children would become something of a phenomenon. Whether it was a painting or a poster print, people were clamoring for the “big eyes”. Unfortunately, Margaret wouldn’t initially receive the richly deserved accolades herself. Her husband, Walter Keane, convinced her that his taking credit for her paintings was in their best interest since a “woman artist” would not likely be taken seriously.
For the better (or more accurately worse ) part of a decade Margaret would faithfully produce painting after painting, which would be signed by her husband to maintain the illusion that he was the artist. Ultimately Margaret would become tired of the farce and break free from her marriage to Walter, which had become no more than master/servant relationship. She would also fight to gain the recognition owed to her for the artwork she toiled to produce for so many years.
The saying that “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is an absolute truth when applied to Amy Adams‘ performance. So much of the emotion she displayed in her portrayal of Margaret Keane was translated to the audience through her eyes. Adams offers up such a heartfelt performance, that it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the very soul crushing betrayal she endures while being enslaved in order to help maintain her husband’s ruse.
Adams has a knack for just existing within the skin of the characters she portrays, in the most natural way. She convincingly shows the evolution of a hopeful woman, whose new-found happiness erodes and drags her into despair. In the end, Adams displays a real sense of strength and fortitude, as her character finally breaks free of the constraints of servitude and her husbands oppressive shadow.
Cristoph Waltz has the charisma to play bad guys in such a way that he actually makes them somewhat likeable – but not this time. Waltz offers up a proper scoundrel as Walter Keane. His performance comes across as charming, yet conniving and manipulative enough to prove truly unlikable.
Waltz becomes transformed into a man who is so deeply entrenched in a deception, that he doesn’t care who he must hurt or potentially destroy to maintain it. Waltz’s depiction of Walter’s lunacy culminates in an incendiary tirade aimed art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp), embodying equal parts of an enraged Peter Finch in Network and a venom spouting propaganda film representation of Adolf Hitler, who incidentally was a failed artist as well.
I was disappointed with one scene, which too closely echoed shades of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It wasn’t so much an homage as a lukewarm reenactment, which made me think more of Nicholson’s “little pigs” scene more than the performance I was watching.
The supporting cast gave some great performances, even though some of them seemed somewhat under utilized. If the movie had been longer it would have been possible to expand some of these roles to add more depth to the story.
Danny Huston, as Dick Nolan, did a great job, but was used somewhat unevenly. Since the movie began with Huston doing a voice over as Nolan, it would have been good to see that narrative device consistently employed throughout the movie.
Krysten Ritter turned in a nice performance as Margaret’s best friend, DeeAnn, who is suspicious of Walter from word one. She is featured at the beginning, shows up again briefly and is then just gone. Terrence Stamp, in the role of John Canaday, wonderfully portrays a sharp-tongued critic and source of antagonism for Walter Keane.
Finally there’s Jason Schwartzman, who sporadically pops up in the guise of a tragically hip art dealer, Ruben, who shows that the only thing he cares about is what art happens to be popular and pricey at the time.
Most fans of Tim Burton would agree that he has a visual style that’s very recognizable. But if the audience wasn’t aware of the fact that Burton was directing this movie, they weren’t about to be tipped off stylistically. It didn’t look like one of Burton’s films at all, and that may well have been intentional. Perhaps it was so his elements of style wouldn’t overshadow the subject matter of the movie.
That’s not to say that the film didn’t look good, because it looked amazing. The time period of the late 50’s to the late 60’s, over which the story progresses, was represented very well. Everything, from the wardrobe and decor to the vehicles of the period and the settings, lent to the films authenticity.
One element that caught my eye, was this sense that it was perpetually sunny and bright. Yet when we see Margaret at work on her paintings, she is in a tiny room lit only by a small easel lamp. So while she works on her paintings, nestled away in secret, the sun is trying to break through the dark window coverings of her tiny, dimly lit room. And while I know California is a sunny place, it seems to provide some contrast to Walter and Margaret’s relationship; while he’s in the spotlight, she remains tucked away in the shadows.
The story felt somewhat unbalanced and at times unfocused. I felt certain aspects of the story, especially the beginning, were glanced over too quickly. It would have been interesting to see more of a depiction of her initial struggle as a single mother, trying to eke out a living after her divorce (which we also saw very little about). Little time was spent on Margaret and Walter’s relationship in the early stages, as they seemed to move quickly from their first meeting to their marriage.
As I said before, if the movie had been longer there would have been an opportunity to strengthen the story by including more details and events. Even at 106 minutes in length, the story moves very quickly and could have been extended without any worry of the narrative dragging along.
Overall, I really did enjoy the movie for the acting and the subject matter. I also feel that Burton did a great job, given that this movie took him outside of his comfort zone. It’s a true tale of morality and of a woman finding her strength, that I’m glad I was able to experience. And even if it doesn’t give audiences the entire story, it will hopefully pique their collective interest enough to explore the facts deeper on their own.