The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an uneven, yet entertaining biopic driven by a show-stopping Jessica Chastain: Sydney Film Festival Review

A film that’s likely to resonate with, or at least feel more familiar to American audiences, The Eyes of Tammy Faye does its best to clue in local Australian viewers as to just who was the larger-than-life personality Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.  An only-in-America type tale, Tammy Faye’s small-time Minnesota upbringing, where she “found Jesus” at a young age, led her to marry the equally religious Jim Bakker, with the duo eventually taking their local television act to a national forum, all the while her exaggerated eyelashes, gaudy make-up, loud clothes, and enthusiastic singing kept her a known figure – whether audiences were familiar with her or not.

Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and headlined by Jessica Chastain in the type of go-for-broke performance that the Academy usually laps up, The Eyes of Tammy Faye attempts to cover the majority of its subject’s unorthodox life, rather than hone in on the scandals that plagued her and, in some ways, defined her; said scandal revolving around her husband’s (Andrew Garfield) financial and sexual misconduct that momentarily stalled her career.

An adaptation of the similarly titled documentary from 2000, which told its story solely from the view of the then-living Tammy Faye – the icon succumbing to cancer in 2007 after an 11-year battle – Showalter’s film also lenses the film from her perspective.  It’s an understandably pro-Tammy film, showcasing her as a woman who believed in the goodness of others, even if she knew better; the fact that she stood by her husband during his numerous discretions speaks to her devotion as both a wife and a human.  In some ways, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is topically addressing the manner in which women were often treated in the media with little regard, before a re-examination of late brings to light the obvious misogyny and double standards on hand; #FreeBritney and #JusticeForMeganFox say hello.

With the film aiming to cover so much of her life, it’s understandable that certain aspects fall by the wayside, but it’s unfortunate that Abe Sylvia‘s script doesn’t address certain controversies that undoubtedly would have helped shape Tammy’s character even further.  Her second marriage to Roe Messner, who himself was a co-conspirator in illegal real estate doings with her first husband, is entirely omitted, whilst the notion of just how complicit she was in Jim’s crimes is similarly not addressed; whilst it’s plausible she was against his stealing of network funds, that she knew nothing for the length of time he was doing it seems suspicious.

Whatever the specific truth, it’s evident that Tammy Faye only intended for the best, and Chastain’s performance drives this genuine humanity home.  What so easily could have been a caricature iteration is instead a lovingly portrayed, somehow grounded effort that never once makes a mockery of Tammy’s temperament.  Though hard to say if this film does its subject justice, there’s no denying that these Eyes offer an entertaining insight, with Chastain the driving force we are more than happy to have steer us along the way.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, which is being presented in-person and On Demand between November 3rd and 21st, 2021.  For more information head to the official SFF page. It is scheduled for a national release on January 27th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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