Walter Keane isn’t much of an artist, as is evident from a sequence in Big Eyes which he is unable to tell if a painting has been made with oil or acrylic.

But Walter Keane is an impresario, a salesman and a smooth talker. He knows that his mousey wife Margaret can’t make a painting jump off the wall the way he can. He has the street dealer’s insight into what is au courant and the future. And he is a man and she is a woman.

Tim Burton’s smoothly narrated biographical drama incorporates and simplifies the big ideas that gripped America and much of the world in the sixties – the second wave of feminism, the mainstream embrace of art, the rise of the middleman, and the celebrity that had begun to cling to artists. Margaret (Amy Adams) paints sad-looking and massive-eyed children in the centre of the frame, staring at the spectator with a mixture of winsomeness and terror. When fellow artist Walter (Christoph Waltz) waltzes into her life, she seems to be finally living out her Bohemian dream. But Walter is both failed artist and charlatan, a dangerous combination if there ever was one. Reasoning that one Keane is as good as the other so long as the money keep rolling in, he pretends to the outside world that the bug-eyed children are a product of his fevered imagination. Margaret plays along with the fraud, and is content to be cooped up in her domestic factory, churning out paintings, posters and what have you to keep the assembly line busy.

Surface tensions

The movie’s relentlessly bright and warm colour palette rarely lets in the darkness that must have characterised the lopsided marriage. Only a few stray scenes hint at the sadness of a situation in which a seemingly intelligent woman let herself be swallowed up by her husband in exchange for a better life. Burton is no stranger to weird and strange characters and impulses, but his decision to put Big Eyes in the Big Fish section of his filmography rather than Sweeney Todd won’t satisfy those looking for a version of The Hours or similar films about proto-feminists who escaped the stifling confines of suburban America to make a life for themselves. Even his delightful animated children’s movie Frankenweenie is more subversive.

By the time the fraud has been exposed, Big Eyes has dissolved into outright farce, Christoph Waltz’s non-menacing mugging has breached tolerable limits, and Adams’s awakening is too externalised to count as a genuine makeover. If it’s possible to make an entertaining movie about a woman whose vital creative years were stolen by her husband, Burton has done it. He takes his cue from Margaret’s flat and kitsch-friendly work, and keeps his exploration of the couple’s dynamic strictly on the surface. The 106-minute drama is always watchable, and works no less and no more than a two-dimensional portrait that catches the eye and suggests deeper meaning than is actually present.