Free Press Journal

Movie Review – Big Eyes: Compelling biopic 


Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp

Director: Tim Burton

Misogyny has undermined and trivialised women’s achievements in society, in economics, politics, science, the arts and culture. Actually, patriarchy has all but erased women from history. Virginia Woolf wrote, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” That statement still holds good for god-forsaken places like the self-proclaimed and malevolent ISIL Caliphate.

Sexism and gender inequality forced Mary Ann Evans, Amantine Aurore Dupin, the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott to adopt male pen names (George Eliot, George Sand, Currer/Ellis Bell, A. M. Barnard). Critics ignored female artists or treated them with disdain. You can imagine what Margaret (Amy Adams, compelling) Keane feels like when New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp, imperious) rubbishes her best-selling artworks of sad saucer-eyed children. (Many FPJ readers will remember these were the rage in the sixties/seventies.)

The purpose of art, proclaims Canaday (at his glacial best) is to elevate. I agree. It doesn’t matter to Margaret at that moment that her charming but feckless second husband Walter (Christoph Walz, flamboyant) has been passing them off as his own. She is devastated but had grown accustomed to work in the shadow of her devious husband who insists that no one wants to buy “lady art.” Such nonsense! IMHO, there’s no such thing as feminine art.

It is only when Margaret enters a new phase – portraits of elongated women – that she refuses to allow Walter to take credit for the artworks. But it takes years and a ludicrous arson attempt before she summons up the courage to leave him. Poor Margaret didn’t have much luck with men. She’d left her abusive first husband Frank only to be trapped by a suave, glib-talking salesman. She takes baby steps to female redemption when she is visited by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Vastly different from his previous films, Tim Burton’s engaging biopic is as much about the profoundly unequal relationship in a marriage as it is about high and low art, art versus commerce and the lofty values that exalt truth and honesty and despise falsehood and manipulation. At this point, I’d like to say that I have a problem with “low” art. Because I like jazz and Andy Warhol ( who copied Margaret according to Walter) and I love the Beatles so, I prefer to apply the term “popular”  to the arts which are easily accessible and  understood by the wider public which will, eventually, hopefully gravitate to the sublime. M S Subbulakshmi anyone? Bach? Bhimsen Joshi? Rumi? Eliot?