It’s like a feminist parable, except it’s true. Margaret Keane created and painted all those sentimental waifs with the huge eyes that stared out of kitschy posters and greeting cards in the 60s and 70s (and I seem to recall them being hugely popular right into the 80s, too), but her husband, Walter, took all the credit for them until… well, check out the delightful Big Eyes to find out how it ended. This is director Tim Burton’s (Frankenweenie) most down-to-earth movie ever — his only down-to-earth movie, really — and yet the always exquisite Amy Adams (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) lends it the air of a bitter fairy tale as a painter and single mother in 1950s San Francisco who comes under the sway of the charming yet conniving Walter (Christoph Waltz: Spectre), a painter himself, though more con artist than artist. If we’re being generous, we can say that the sniveling weasel — Waltz is truly a magnificent bastard here — didn’t set out to appropriate his wife’s work: he stumbled upon it as a marketing tactic, because who wants to buy a woman’s art, anyway? (And he did also come up with the ingenious idea to sell cheap prints of expensive canvases, which is sheer marketing brilliance.)
Adams’ innate sweetness, so much smarter than Margaret’s saccharine work, and never cloying, creates a deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman who was betrayed not only on a personal level by her own love and trust but also by a world that didn’t leave her much option but to marry the first seemingly decent man who asked her purely to ensure the basic security and comfort of herself and her child, and then to agree to a fraud that became more difficult to extricate herself from the more successful they were. Her naïveté may have been all her own, but her vulnerability was culturally constructed, right down to the bad advice she gets from a priest about how the Bible says “husbands know best.” We can wonder whether she could have been so hugely popular on her own, without Walter’s hucksterism, but we can also safely guess that she would not. And that’s even more criminal than what Walter did.