AFF 2023: Small transgressions lead to major crimes in ‘Art Thief’

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AFF 2023: Small transgressions lead to major crimes in ‘Art Thief’
Max Deacon and Jacqueline Emerson star as aspiring artists in love who cleverly work their way through a criminal entanglement in ‘Art Thief,’ which won Best of Festival in the 2023 Alexandria Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)
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By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

In every good heist movie, the crime perpetrators need to be likable – think “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Great Train Robbery” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” They also need to be less bad than the real bad guys, Arthur Bjorn Egeli, director, co-producer and co-writer of “Art Thief,” explained during a question and answer session Saturday afternoon during the Alexandria Film Festival.

Max Deacon as untalented but passionate artist Kevin Deely and Jacqueline Emerson as Olympia Hutchinson, a painter who works at a somewhat shady art auction house, have viewers rooting for them as “Art Thief” unfolds.

Apparently, enough AFF viewers found Deacon and Emerson appealing enough to vote “Art Thief” as this year’s Best of Festival, AFF announced in a release on Monday. Deacon, who is British, is convincing as a lower-class Bostonian who assumes an upper class accent, while the appealing Emerson is best known for playing “Foxface” in the second “Hunger Games” movie.

In the film, Kevin carries major baggage from his childhood, during which he was abandoned by his single mother and raised in a boys’ home. His mother was an art lover who instilled in him a love of paintings by taking Kevin to galleries prior to disappearing from his life.

Grown up Kevin is handsome, charming and broke when he begins volunteering in the Gary Hart for President campaign in 1987. Kevin realizes there’s money to be grafted by knocking on doors for Hart in Boston’s wealthier suburbs.

In an amusing scene, Kevin practices an upper class Boston accent by listening to tapes of John F. Kennedy speeches on his 1980s authentic Walkman. He successfully raises thousands of dollars for Hart, skimming off the top as he goes along. Kevin winds up in prison for stealing the Hart campaign’s money and the identity of a fatuous son-of-power.

Before landing in the slammer, Kevin meets Olympia, a gorgeous redhead reminiscent of a young Kate Winslett, in an art class. They begin dating and Kevin eventually pulls Olympia into his entanglements with criminals both obvious and seemingly respectable.

Multiple Rembrandts are stolen in “Art Thief,” which is an imagined “how it might have happened” course of events of the largest single theft of art in history: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed in 1990 of art valued at more than $550 million.

Egeli spoke after the film about the logistical and legal facets of making a movie about art. In the case of “Art Thief,” the stolen paintings are presumed lost forever, so using existing works in the film wasn’t an option.

The solution: Egeli, who is an artist himself, and the artist community in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Egeli lives with his wife Heather Egeli, painted reproductions of the masterpieces.

“Art Thief” provides a glimpse at how easy it is to copy and alter art, which leads to the film’s central theme – that small transgressions easily lead to major sins.

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