The Painter and the Thief (4 stars)

The Painter and the Thief

Benjamin Ree's award-winning, stranger-than-fiction documentary focuses on an unlikely friendship

The winner of Best Documentary Feature at this year's London Film Festival, which also picked up a Creative Storytelling prize at Sundance, tells the tale of a bizarre and remarkable friendship. It follows two troubled souls who overcome the unpleasant circumstances that throw them together to forge an incredibly deep connection.

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree, the film opens with time-lapse footage documenting the production of a stunning painting of a nesting swan, before CCTV shows the painting in question being snatched from a gallery in Oslo, along with another by the same artist, the Czech-born Barbora Kysilkova. When Barbora meets one of the men who stole from her, Karl-Bertil Nordland (known as Bertil), a man with addiction issues who has recently served a long stretch in jail, her instinct is to befriend not admonish him, with Bertil later sitting for her as a subject and the two settling into a really quite touching dynamic.

Ree cleverly comes at the story from both participants' perspectives, as layers are peeled back to gradually reveal the full picture and a more rounded view of their characters; the pair offer their insights on the other, taking us through their upbringing and likes and dislikes, touches that can be unusual and endearing. If Barbora initially seems the more placid and together of the two, she is struggling more than she lets on, psychologically and financially, with a spell in couples therapy with her partner Øystein unearthing some demons.

There are elements of mystery here – 'Where are the paintings?' 'How did Bertil come to be this way?' – and, given that such complex personalities are never going to lay things entirely bare for us, they are well addressed. Full of infectious fascination, The Painter and the Thief is a compassionate, entertaining and substantial stranger-than-fiction tale, while it's as gorgeously shot as you'd hope from a documentary about art.

Available to watch in cinemas and on demand from Fri 30 Oct.

The Painter and the Thief

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US / Norway
  • 1h 42min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Benjamin Ree
  • Cast: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil-Nordland

Desperate for answers about the theft of her 2 paintings, a Czech artist seeks out and befriends the career criminal who stole them. After inviting her thief to sit for a portrait, the two form an improbable relationship and an inextricable bond that will forever link these lonely souls.

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