Tim Burton certainly has a way with larger than life characters. In his animated and fantastical outings, that’s more than a little obvious, but he has a certain way with characters in his more grounded productions as well. The excellent Ed Wood comes to mind, which portrays the worst director of all time as something akin to being endearing rather than insufferable. However, something feels a little off about how Burton has chosen to portray the lives of Walter and Margaret Keane, if not in its portrayal of facts, then most certainly in which he chooses to emphasize.
To those unaware, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) rose to fame in the 1960s during the commercial art movement, selling copied reproductions of his paintings of young girls with disproportionately large eyes. Much to the chagrin of the art community, Walter pushed his paintings to the masses through sheer force of personality, becoming one of the most recognized and financially successful artists in the world. However, there’s one problem with that version of history; it’s not true. His wife Margaret (Amy Adams) is the one who, for the entirety of his career, was responsible for painting the renowned works.
The film ostensibly plays the quiet and meek Margaret as its protagonist, which it very well should in light of Walter’s villainous manipulation. The film opens with Walter wining and dining Margaret, but it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s not as noble and romantic as his eccentricities paint him to be. Eventually, Walter convinces Margaret that the only way anyone will take her art seriously is if he, a man, takes public credit for it. What follows is a slow and twisted descent into a gradually more abusive relationship, one that never reaches the point of physical blows but does amount to virtual imprisonment as Margaret is forced to paint picture after picture, never receiving any credit while her work forces her into isolation from everyone, including her own daughter.
And while the film does portray all this, Burton can’t seem to stop himself from focusing on Walter’s crazed antics. Though there are certainly scenes wherein Margaret’s suffering takes the spotlight, every scene where Walter is present steals said spotlight so that his rambling speeches can take center stage. Perhaps that was partially the intent, as Walter’s overpowering nature is precisely what prevented Margaret from coming forward about her art. However, there seems to be a certain amount of glee in Walter’s portrayal, as if Burton wants us to marvel at how deliciously strange this man is rather than how much of a monster he could be. Even the film’s most disturbing scene, in which Walter assaults Margaret and her daughter with matches, is played with a degree of whimsy, when it should have been a terrifying representation of just how serious domestic violence can be.
And yet, despite Burton’s obvious historical crush on Walter’s zaniness, his heart does appear to be in the right place as far as recognizing Walter as the abusive con man that he was. As I said before, Margaret is our protagonist, and though the film occasionally seems to forget so, it eventually steers back on course and delivers a satisfying tale of overcoming one’s abuser. This won’t go down as being the prophetic follow-up to Ed Wood, but it’s a decent little passion project from one of Hollywood’s most commercial directors.
How do you feel about Tim Burton’s work in recent years? Has he maintained his charm, or has he become creatively bankrupt? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.