(Good friend Rohan Morbey checks in during these busy holidays with enthusiastic word on Tim Burton's latest movie, the dream semi-docudrama Big Eyes. The review appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)
What are expectations for if not to be subverted? Many of our favorite filmmakers’ work comes with expectations of how their films will look and a standard to which they should be held. Over three decades, Tim Burton has formed the foundations of a consistent, highly successful career. Visual style influenced by German Expressionism paired with quirky or downright weird characters, plus a fondness for miniature and model work and exceptional set design have helped create the term ‘Burtonesque’ which can been used both affectionately and damningly to describe every one of his films, from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure through to his previous effort Dark Shadows.
Burton is a film maker I admire greatly, his style is unmistakable and often imitated but never bettered, but over the past 15 years, from his Planet Of The Apes remake onwards, Burton has fallen into what I would describe as ‘safe’ or ‘lazy’ career choices, depending on the film in question. That’s not to say his work has not entertained for those years, I enjoyed Sweeney Todd and Frankenweenie quite a bit and even Dark Shadows and Big Fish were enjoyable if familiar fare, but nothing has captured the imagination like a Batman or Beetlejuice or Sleepy Hollow for far too long.
Big Eyes, his seventeenth film as director, does nothing to show the Burton spark which was so evident in his earlier career, but it does defy expectations of what to expect from a Tim Burton film and that is a major step for a director who was almost becoming a parody of himself. There’s not a weird, gothic character in sight nor is there a scary looking mansion. The film is not set predominantly at night, and Johnny Depp isn’t anywhere to be seen. In his most straightforward and least fantastical story since Ed Wood twenty years ago, Burton’s filmic techniques are almost unrecognizable, and that is not a bad thing because he shows he can adapt and tell a relatively simple story in a simple, controlled style. Not burdened with a studio budget with expectations of box office revenue, Big Eyes unfolds at a leisurely, calm and patient pace where his actors are allowed (at last!) to show a range beyond pantomime theatrics.
Perhaps it’s the true story angle and the fact that Margaret Keane, the film’s main character, is still alive that Burton decided to make the film, knowing he should keep the darkness to a minimum and shoot on real streets rather than elaborate sets and force his hand to make a film unlike anything he has made to date. Perhaps he wanted to work with a different cast and crew; a first film with the wonderful Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz and only the second collaboration with DOP Bruno Delbonnel, whilst giving his long-term Costume Designer Colleen Atwood something different to get creative with. I don’t know the reasons but whatever they were I applaud them because Burton has made his first film, rather than product, for a decade.
As for the qualities of the film itself; it depicts the true story of painter Margaret Keane (Adams) and her bullying, narcissistic and deluded husband Walter (Waltz) with a breezy tone, never getting too serious or dramatic which is true of Danny Elfman’s fantastic score, too. Burton keeps the Big Eye paintings in almost every scene, giving the film its one true Burtonesque feature as expressionism and surreal images are the basis of Keane’s talent; not much for Burton and his creative team to worry about. Keane herself, in Burton’s vision, is like Edward Scissorhands minus the obvious differences; she is kept hidden away from the world, made to work in confined spaces where no one will see her true abilities. As a woman her art won’t sell, so she must pretend to be that which she is not.
Big Eyes may not be remembered long in the Tim Burton oeuvre, perhaps seen as an outcast like many of his characters; but that does not mean it is not a perfectly enjoyable film with two fantastically charismatic lead performances and another perfect score from Danny Elfman. After a string of creative misfires, Burton's Big Eyes arrives with arms wide open.