Drama/Biography, 106 Minutes, 2014
Like all “true stories” this is difficult to review because you simply don’t know what’s fact and what’s Hollywood. In this case it’s even more difficult because while the movie is often light, the story told is desperately dark.
Margaret (played by the always excellent Amy Adams [IMDB]) is a talented painter with too little self respect. We first see her running, broke and alone, from an abusive husband with her young daughter in tow. She later meets the charismatic Walter (Christoph Waltz [IMDB], in one of his darkest roles) and they marry.
Walter presents himself as a painter, but produces little actually work. He soon shifts to selling Margaret’s paintings of dark, forlorn children with tear-filled, saucer eyes as his own. They soon become incredibly popular and he markets them, and himself, ruthlessly.
At first he uses wit and charm to convince her to go along, but as his fame grows he devolves to threats and humiliation to keep her quiet. In the last years of their marriage she’s little more than a cloistered servant pumping out artwork to service his ever growing ego. The lies have ruined outside relationships and crushed her already fragile spirit even more.
When she does leave him, finally, she runs to Hawaii – one of the few places she was truly happy – but continues to paint for him and keep his secret. Only after becoming involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses does she finally expose the truth. He steadfastly refuses to admit the truth and a court battle ensues.
The story is masterfully presented by director Tim Burton [IMDB]. I’ve always been a fan, but it must be admitted that he had worked himself into something of a rut. As much as I love their collaborations, it does seem that he and Johnny Depp [IMDB] taking a break from one another has been a fruitful move. Similar to the amazing “Big Fish” [IMDB] a decade ago, this serves as a palate-cleanser for Burton fans and a notable return to form.
Everything else about the movie is above reproach. The acting, pacing and execution are all top-tier work. Adams has nothing prove, but reminds of it nonetheless. Waltz continues to demonstrate his range and depth in the first of what’s likely to me many leading roles.
Underlying the quality and Burton’s quirky veneer, however, is a desperately sad story. This is a woman who never truly seems to find herself. She spends the entire film surrendering her will to others. First an abusive husband, then another and finally a religious cult control and direct her actions. Adams’ performance contains an inner strength and self-reliance that the real Margaret, it seems, may not have possessed.
It’s a bizarre, interesting story and the movie tells it well, but it’s also a deeply uncomfortable experience. Margaret definitely defines an undeniably positive arc in the film, but it never quite seems to evoke that deep catharsis that I was craving.