It’s a pretty good time to be a Western fan. While it may be premature to herald a renaissance, there has been a not-unsubstantial wave of interest, with films such as The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk and The Beguiled adding fresh, intriguing contours — be they thematic, stylistic or narrative — to a genre too frequently thought of as moribund and “old-fashioned”. The same sense of invigorating revisionism unfortunately can’t be applied to The Stolen, which is about as bland as Westerns come. Its biggest point of novelty, a 1860s colonial New Zealand setting, is barely examined in favour of a predictable, cliché-riddled yarn featuring grizzled ex-cons, plucky prostitutes, skeevy skirt-chasing gold miners, and Stan Walker nobly wielding a tomahawk.
Veteran cinematographer Alun Bollinger catches some alluring glimpses of the Canterbury locations, lending reasonable scope to an otherwise modestly budgeted project. But the invariably slick digital lensing robs the film of much-needed grittiness, diluting its portrait of settler hardships. As the chief protagonist — a determined, upper class English immigrant on the trail of her kidnapped son — Alice Eve’s performance is frustratingly uneven, always too histrionic by half and a few takes away from being good. Jack Davenport makes for a one-dimensional villain, his murkily devised motivations giving us little reason to get worked up over. Walker contributes a few quiet, dignified notes as an underused Māori warrior/tracker, but his ill-fitting closing piano ballad highlights The Stolen’s primary lack of vision. It’s like some stiff Masterpiece Theatre wannabe trying too hard to be an ass-kicking, feminist revenge thriller.