Oftentimes true crime series have such heavy, soul-crushing topics. Though fascinating, they can be difficult to watch all in one sitting. A select few true crime series can have both an enticing storyline and not be incredibly sad or traumatizing; thankfully, Netflix’s new This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist fits the bill. Similar to Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers about missing strips of film, or perhaps even the recent McMillions on HBO, This Is a Robbery is a lost and (sort of) found caper that’s actually quite fun to watch. Instead of the McDonald’s Monopoly game prize or a student film, the missing items here are paintings. Huge museum paintings, to be exact.
This Is a Robbery explores the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a gorgeous spot that’s well-known to most Boston locals but fairly off-the-map for those new to the city. The brick building is like a Venetian palace; other than clusters of windows, the exterior is rather plain and uninviting—but the inside? Breathtaking. A lush forest erupts through the center of the museum, which has back corridors filled corner-to-corner with picturesque canvases and sculptures. The first episode rattles off a bevy of details about Isabella Stewart Gardner and her lovely museum, but we’ll cut that exposition down to the nitty-gritty. When the traveling socialite established her museum, curating art and designing the perfect collection, she left one rule in her will: if any permanent, major changes were made, everything was to be shipped off to Paris and auctioned off to other collectors. It had to stay the same, forever, or else it couldn’t stay at all.
And then, 75 years after her death, the unthinkable happened. Around a dozen key paintings were stolen from the museum in one fell swoop. Ripped from their frames and dashed off to an unknown location, to this day, the masterpieces (including stunning works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and more) have yet to find their way back to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. As such, Colin Barnicle’s four-part Netflix series works to solve the case.
Right away, the first episode does exactly what it’s meant to do: pique your interest. A museum robbery sounds like something straight out of a James Bond film, and This Is a Robbery treats the topic as such. The music growls as talking heads recreate the night of the crime from memory; the dramatization throws us into the museum to witness the paintings being torn from the walls. Sure, the thieves’ steps look pretty traceable—except for in one room, in which no one entered during the theft, even though a painting was found missing. So many theories are to be made. Was the security guard in on the job? Maybe the ghost of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself? Or perhaps a Boston mob was involved? The mystery of the museum is enough to hook one’s interest, and the first episode of the mystery starts strong.
Unfortunately, despite intriguing tangents and a thumping score, the rest of This Is a Robbery dwindles after the big bang of the theft. As the second episode begins to unfurl potential motives, it becomes quite clear why this isn’t a longer series. There’s not a huge story to unpack. The mystery grows a bit stale, and the filmmaking—a standard mix of interviews, archival footage, animated maps, and hazy reenactments—isn’t intriguing enough to add any buoyancy. Still, if nothing else, you’ll certainly want to take a visit to Boston and check out the gallery where the empty frames haunt the walls as reminders of what used to be hanging.
That aesthetic goes a long way. The museum itself is such a creepy character that—let alone what happened to it in 1990—it’s enough to carry the entire series on its back. This Is a Robbery spends so much time in the museum—recreating the night, explaining the layout of the museum, showing where the paintings used to hang—that it begins to feel claustrophobic, yet in a good way. Think From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. There’s an eerie aura that can’t be put into words, exactly, about museums (especially after hours) that This Is a Robbery hits spot-on.
While the character of the museum itself is perfect, the other characters are a little lacking. McMillions feels akin to This Is a Robbery in the sense that their subjects are equally eccentric, but McMillions had the added benefit of wild interviews that blew the series out of the water. None of the amiable subjects in This Is a Robbery stand out well enough to make it a truly memorable show, though that may not be an aspect of the series that was mendable. Perhaps a medium could have been interviewed about the presence of Isabella Stewart Gardner, or someone with a wild theory about the museum being haunted could have said their piece. The story is wild enough that it deserves lively storytellers.
Though This Is a Robbery has its shortcomings, it’s also short—and enticing enough to warrant a four-hour watch session. The series is also honest, and stays true to the legacy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Unlike many true crime docs, there’s kind of a 50/50 answer at the end: there’s some closure, but luckily, there’s still an air of intrigue lingering within the halls of the museum. This Is a Robbery doesn’t frame everything into a clear portrait: there’s room to theorize, if you will, which is the most enthralling part of watching true crime.
All four episodes of This Is a Robbery are now streaming on Netflix.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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