Toward the end of the horror comedy Dark Shadows, Angelique (Eva Green) begins to chip and crumble. She’s spent most of the movie and, indeed, the better part of two centuries, looking impeccably made up and styled. For her life in the early 1970s, she boasts lipstick the color of stage blood, imperiously dyed-blond hair, and impeccable pale skin. But as she struggles with her long-ago ex-lover and current vampire, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), her desperation mounts, and her façade begins to crack like porcelain. This character could easily be turned into a hateful caricature; she’s the villain of the film, an embittered literal witch who curses Barnabas with vampirism when he spurns her for another. But Angelique has such melancholy grandeur that her visible fracturing generates real pathos even as she staggers around like a vengeful ceramic zombie, losing pieces as she wreaks havoc upon the Collins household. The china-doll effect is not subtle, but it reaches a vivid, visual memorability rarely achieved by, say, most cinematic-universe supervillains.
This image is attributable to Green’s charismatic performance, some first-rate makeup and computer effects, and director Tim Burton. Strangely, it may be the presence of Burton that accounts for how little affection most movie-watchers have for an uneven but stylishly nutty picture like Dark Shadows. Burton has been making feature films for about 35 years, and his work has long since descended into empty, self-parodic signifiers of what used to make it so original and exciting—or at least that’s what a lot of the internet has to say about it. Burton’s reputation in some circles has diminished to the point where his new live-action-ish remake of Dumbo seems to be generating audience excitement despite his participation, rather than because of it (which seems somewhat counterintuitive, given the lumbering theme-park-attraction soullessness of previous Disney remakes like Beauty And The Beast).
One knock against later-period Burton is that his distinctive visual style smothers his actors with overelaborate costuming and other affectations. This seems particularly pronounced in his many films with Johnny Depp, whose face the director has habitually obscured behind makeup, outré wigs, and funny hats. While this is not an entirely fair assessment of Burton’s strengths and sensibility (or at very least, not an especially interesting one), it’s also understandable that no one is much interested in a close examination of Johnny Depp’s career these days. Luckily, Depp is not the only member of Burton’s repertory company—just the leading man he’s returned to most frequently. In Dumbo alone, Burton notches his fourth movie with Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, and his third with his former Angelique, Eva Green. Green is especially notable because all three of her movies with Burton have come later in his career. Burton’s professional relationship with DeVito goes back to 1992; Green didn’t make her first Burton film until Dark Shadows, 20 years later.
She’s an ideal collaborator for Burton because—like Depp, Keaton, and DeVito—she is so adept at striking outlandish poses and bringing to life his circus-performance aesthetic (which becomes literal with Dumbo). Like other frequent Burton players, Green is capable of quieter, less fantastical work, but she excels in (and appears drawn to) what a denizen of Wonderland might refer to as “muchness.” Burton did not coax this out of her; Dark Shadows was not the first time she played a witch, and in 2014 she appeared in no fewer than two much-belated Frank Miller sequels (to Sin City and 300), giving super-stylized performances that somehow included two separate 3D nude scenes without ever surrendering her power to the obvious male gaze of both pictures.
Sexuality often figures into Green’s performances, as it did in her Bertolucci-helmed debut, The Dreamers. By contrast, there’s rarely much sex in a Tim Burton movie. Much of Dark Shadows follows Collins, a bloodsucking murderer, attempting to evade the sexual advances of Angelique, pursuing instead a more chaste romance with a woman who reminds him of his long-dead true love. A brief consummation between vampire and witch is played for room-smashing, wall-crawling slapstick (complete with some rolling camera moves). But while Green plays the part with a certain B-movie archness that dovetails with Burton’s seeming discomfort over genuine sexuality, she also pushes past caricature into something more electric. She bears her rictus of a smile and, when she first relaxes into the presence of her ex-boyfriend, lowers her voice into a scratchy monster growl; Angelique is at once put together and barely hanging onto her humanity. In Green’s broader roles, she creates a compelling tension between a confident sophistication and a rawer, more feral state.
That tension is less present in her other two films with Burton—even though she’s playing a witchy bird-woman in one and an actual circus performer in the other. Green has yet to play a proper leading role in any his films; although she’s first-billed in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, she’s very much in the Professor X/Dumbledore role of mentor to a gaggle of fantastically abled young people. (Jane Goldman, co-writer of X-Men: First Class, adapted the screenplay from a book series.) Her Miss Peregrine spends a lot of time issuing explanations and exposition, and for the movie’s liveliest section, a playful action climax, she even gets sidelined in the manner of Professor X in most of the X-Men films. Although she’s less ostentatiously made up than in Dark Shadows, Peregrine depends even more on her visual qualities: a swoop of hair, her crossbow at the ready, a serene sense of calm in a crisis.
Despite the darkness of Angelique and Green’s other genre roles, her work with Burton also showcases her softer, warmer side. She’s downright pure of heart in his Dumbo redo. As Colette, a French acrobat under the thumb of shady circus impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), she briefly appears imposing and remote before quickly revealing a motherly sensitivity toward two wayward circus kids and their little elephant buddy. A bigger cast and a stronger human story differentiate this Dumbo from its cartoon source without quite plumbing major emotional depths, which is to say that Green doesn’t have much to do beyond have fun and show some empathy. When on screen, though, she’s a terrific fit as a circus performer, with theatrical arm movements and preternatural poise. Just three movies in, and she’s just as comfortable as Burton veterans Keaton and DeVito, and just as capable of enlivening the proceedings. If Burton remains an animator at heart, he still works best with actors who animate well.
Dumbo, like Miss Peregrine, relies on cute kids—beyond the darker hues of its nighttime scenes, it’s arguably significantly less disturbing than the animated original. But Keaton, DeVito, and Green all cut striking figures. There’s always been a painterly quality to Burton’s treatment of his actors, and contrary to his reputation as someone who keeps dragging his brush across the same palette, he does take some opportunities to vary his hues. Green’s Dumbo character may not be substantial, but “wily acrobat” isn’t exactly a designated Tim Burton personality type, nor does Green’s warm performance recall the single-minded fury of Dark Shadows, beyond her always commanding physicality. These variations mirror Burton’s broader visual range: Dumbo works in plenty of his touchstones, from carnival sideshow signage to black-and-white stripes to his favorite actors old and new, but it doesn’t much resemble the rain-faded psychedelia of Alice In Wonderland or the soft California glare cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel brings to Big Eyes.
Another underacknowledged element of late-period Burton is that without Depp front and center, he seems more likely to turn his attention to female performers, like Mia Wasikowska in Alice or Amy Adams in Eyes. Given that, it’s a shame that he has yet to craft (or, given his tendencies, adapt) an unequivocal leading role for Green. The weakest parts of recent Burton movies tend to be his approximation of childhood reticence or innocence, typically (though not always) male: the negligible lead character in Miss Peregrine, the sweet but unmemorable kids in Dumbo, the forgettable stop-motion protagonist of Frankenweenie.
All of these films have moments that feel like Burton trying to re-create moments of childhood reverie from memory. They’re not boring or even impersonal, and they also have moments of real beauty, especially the gorgeous Dumbo. But his attempts to play specifically to a younger audience, while not inherently objectionable (folks, Alice In Wonderland is a children’s movie, and it’s a pretty good one!), sometimes feel redundant, given how effortlessly something like The Nightmare Before Christmas can appeal to children, teenage goths, and teenage goths at heart. His most interesting movies have an interplay between childhood toys and adult loneliness. Think of the melancholy of Jack Skellington, essentially a professional holiday decoration, or his version of Batman, brooding over a gigantic toy box. Burton’s less interesting movies focus more on the toy boxes themselves.
An actor like Green, who feels adult even in children’s films, can snap Burton out of his routine for scenes at a time, without fully removing him from Burton-world. (This is why Dark Shadows, for all of its unevenness, often comes wonderfully alive.) He’ll likely never stop making Tim Burton movies, and likely never stop treating his performers as Colleen Atwood-styled dress-up dolls—and why should he, provided he can find more ways to recombine his favorite actors, colors, and monster movies? The trick is to find new ways into those obsessions—and obsession is something Green knows exactly how to convey. “None of this would have happened if you had just loved me,” Angelique tells Barnabas toward the end of Dark Shadows. It’s a little vindictive, but it’s heartbreaking, too—and not just because she then literally offers him her crumbling, witchy heart. Let’s not begrudge Burton for repeatedly returning to his old Disney grounds, for entertaining his inner child and countless actual children. But let’s also hope that actors like Green remind him to love his inner adult, too.