Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In 1990, two thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in a quiet district of Boston, tied up the security guards, and stole 13 priceless works of art. In doing so, they outraged polite society and created a mystery which fascinates the art world to this day.

Ostensibly about the search for the missing art, Rebecca Dreyfus' fascinating documentary is, like the lost paintings, much cleverer than it appears on the surface. Drawing together the details of the search like a taut little thriller, it introduces us to the various personalities involved, including those already dead for many years.

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We meet Harold Smith, the renowned art detective who refused to give up the search despite 15 years without success and a lifelong struggle with skin cancer; Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring, who explains her lifelong obsession with Vermeers; Paul 'Turbocharger' Hendry, the loudmouthed former conman convinced of a conspiracy involving various ex-presidents; and Mrs Gardner herself, the society lady who lost her two year old son and became determined never to lose anything so beautiful again.

In telling their tales, Stolen makes one thing very clear - that all of these people are entranced by the lost paintings and will do practically anything to get them. There is, in the end, very little difference between thieves, detectives and collectors - those who see into the secrets of the paintings are overwhelmed by the desire to possess them.

With such potent subject matter, a delightfully dry sense of humour and a host of further quirky characters on display, Stolen is an intriguing creation which will draw in any sensitive viewer regardless of what that person does or doesn't know about art. Focused on the idea of a painting as an attempt to capture and preserve a moment in time, it is itself a mesmerising portrait, a glimpse of lives now lost.

It is also a fine technical achievement, keeping the viewer's attention with constantly shifting yet never intrusive imagery, always coming back to the centrepoint of Vermeer's The Concert. As we study the faces of the people in the portraits, the film examines the face of Mrs Gardner, often deliberately obscured, and that of Smith, painstakingly reconstructed and the subject of much humour on his part. With a soundtrack full of half-heard conversations and sampled telephone messages from members of the public intrigued by the search, this film creates the impression that one is right there in the thick of it, as close to the action as if one were standing in the room beside Vermeer's piano and his impassioned subjects.

It is a triumph of documentary film-making, modest in its ambitions yet dazzling in its scope, and it's something you'll want to look at again and again.

Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2006
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Stolen packshot
A documentary watching the detectives looking for stolen works of art.

Director: Rebecca Dreyfus

Starring: Harold J Smith and the voices of Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott

Year: 2005

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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