When the true story behind Big Eyes is so curious and emblematic, can the cinematic version be any less, especially in the hands of the singular Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish)?

Set in 1950s and 1960s San Francisco, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander’s script is based on the relationship of Margaret and Walter Keane, an artist couple grappling with their own specific craving for recognition. It is not a love story as much as a story about an epic art fraud.

Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was renowned and celebrated for his paintings of waifish children with disproportionately large eyes. Attaining fame and fortune, he applies marketing smarts to expand the revenue stream for the art beyond the framed canvas. He mass-produces posters and images of paintings that are sold cheaply across counters. While he is out smoothly selling the paintings, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) beavers away, tirelessly producing canvas after canvas. It takes a while for her to discover that her husband has been passing off her works as his own, an easy con since the paintings were simply signed “Keane".

So while Margaret’s paintings become famous, she does not. Walter tries to explain to Margaret that as a woman painter her works would not be taken as seriously or fetch as high a price.

But one day, when Walter’s greed spins out of control, and Margaret’s frustration at the absence of acknowledgement and her need to express herself artistically gets the better of her, she exposes her fast-talking salesman husband’s non-existent artistic talent and his desperation.

The court scenes that follow Margaret’s awakening, where she and Walter battle it out to prove who is the artist behind the cult paintings, are great fun. So are the moments where a respected art critic disparages their paintings.

Besides being a story of art fraud, Big Eyes is also that common tale of conflicts born out of ambition, jealousy, avarice, and an oppressed woman’s need to step out of the shadows.

The film does not have Tim Burton’s signature style—he is a known collector of these paintings. It’s a gently painted canvas with a remarkably measured performance by Adams. Waltz’s hammed-up pitch is often in discord with the rest of the film, which glides along in either a haze of soft focus or a wide-eyed exploration of the Keanes’ home, psyche and motivations.

Big Eyes released in theatres on Friday.

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