'Stolen' Robs Female-Driven Western of Charisma, Practicality

Directed by: Niall Johnson; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: D

Capturing the experience of being a woman during the western/frontier era has its complications, regardless of the country within which it's taking place, where filmmakers must trot along the line between credible depictions of gender dynamics and inspiring feats of independence and wherewithal. Some tread closer to the territory of realism -- such as the austere and slow-rolling Meek's Cutoff -- but most other contemporary female-led westerns take themselves less seriously to elevate the empowering action and themes, hinged on murdered or debilitated husbands that force spirited women to fend for themselves and, more often than not, quickly learn to get comfortable using a gun. The Stolen plays out like a reaction to other films of its type, as if purposely muting the overstated mannerisms of its contemporaries while also trying to keep the lead character's growth from dainty wife to capable gunslinger somewhat genuine. Doing so has also robbed action-oriented energy and personality from the heroine, resulting in a dull and haphazard period drama.

Alice Eve takes her shot at the genre as Charlotte, a beautiful and delicate wife to a wealthy landowner in New Zealand, who's recently given birth to a young son. In the middle of the night, a group of masked bandits show up and rob them at gunpoint, with the sequence of events leaving Charlotte's husband dead and her young infant taken somewhere unknown. Grieving the situation and seemingly hopeless, she one day receives a letter ensuring her that her son's alive and can essentially be bought back with a sum of money. With only the barest of knowledge about how to operate a firearm, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands and tries to sleuth her way to her son's location, leading her across the wilderness and into the dens of less savory individuals, some good-natured enough and others as vile as they come. The journey, understandably, becomes a transformative experience for the mostly soft-spoken and genteel Charlotte, bound to get even tougher if she actually finds her son and tries to reclaim him.

Based on the film's appealing yet stripped-down capturing of the period and the presence of a talent like Alice Eve -- a disarming and empathetic actress in need of the right leading role -- The Stolen holds promise in its depiction of a grieving woman surviving alone and pursuing her abducted child in mid-1800s New Zealand. Eve has a reputation of bringing unexpected pluckiness to supporting roles, yet she usually does so after establishing a credibly reserved presence and then lets her edginess poke out, which could plausibly elevate Charlotte's transformation of her demeanor. With elegant garments and the actress' pursed attitude, the beginning of The Stolen builds its historical world well enough around Charlotte, even going so far as to plant early seeds in her ability to use firearms. Emphasis falls on the quality of her husband's character and her trepidation in changing lifestyles, after moving to a more remote location without farmhands and houseworkers. These positive qualities can only sustain the film for a brief time, yet there are early glimmers of substance behind Charlotte's story.

Then, the circumstances leading to the creation of our maternal heroine's solitude emerge in The Stolen, and the wheels start coming off. Precise, hard-to-stomach connections of events are crucial to discovering where her son might be and to how she gets there, to "Gold Town", sending her on a ramshackle trek across the perilous New Zealand countryside with a gaggle of salacious "working women" in the wagon with her … and questionable men guarding them. The contrast in their personalities remains predictably stark as the high-chinned, long-necked Charlotte winces and tolerates their looser and more invasive presence, then begins to see the human side and hard-livin' awareness that each one has to offer, playing into the film's methodology of shaping Charlotte into her own kind of independent woman. The connections that could've formed between them never develop beyond how they progress the script's threadbare plotting and shield Charlotte from the unwanted advances of men, growing more complicated and less plausible as the wagon ride turns ludicrously calamitous and fatal.

The Stolen doesn't really concern itself with the entertainment side of the western genre, as it desperately tries to make the audience take it seriously by respecting the mother's grief and restraints of her gender roles, sporting only a few tame, throwaway shootouts and assorted action throughout. Some suspense may be unearthed once Charlotte reaches Gold Town alongside that troupe of prostitutes and very few other women around, forcing her to adapt to the surroundings and remain in good standing with the town's owner, McCullen (Jack Davenport), but her progression from upper-cruster to an undercover lady of the night doesn't persuade enough to lend significance to her survivalist tendencies. Beyond moments of seduction that Charlotte cleverly exploits to her advantage, The Stolen leaves one searching for a purpose -- either narrative or expressive -- to her trials rather than digging into the hazards of pursuing her son: the consequence of relying so heavily on hardbound melodramatics instead of having a little fun with Charlotte's vengeance.

Once she stands with a new, piercing demeanor and a steady hand holding a revolver, it's hard to know what to make of Charlotte by the end of The Stolen, as she's neither the prim-‘n-proper debutante from the beginning nor the brazen, fully independent woman on display by her prior traveling companions. She's undergone an evolution, but director Niall Johnson doesn't place enough emphasis on the impacts that her experiences have had to illustrate what kind of woman she's become or will continue to be. Decoding that answers and interpreting the caliber of Charlotte's liberty might've been an interesting exercise under better circumstances, yet The Stolen doesn't offer enough substance to achieve that, and the timed arrival of a hackneyed last-minute savior undercuts -- and distracts from -- some of those deeper consequences. With marginal action and muddy dramatic purposes, what's left is a shallow, rudderless period drama whose commitment to practicality and evasion of cinematic indulgence leaves a film that's robbed of enough character to care.

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