Art theft always has a bit of romance about it, perhaps because the act suggests a thief with good taste. Usually, though, the facts of the matter turn out to be quite otherwise—opportunity, blundering and the disappearance of masterpieces for decades because, well, you can’t sell the “Mona Lisa” on eBay. In the three-part documentary “The Heiress and the Heist,” you get all of the above, as well as a mastermind acting out her daddy issues against a backdrop of bomb-lobbing, extortion and kidnapping.

The Heiress and the Heist

Thursday, Sundance Now and AMC+

The centerpiece of the series is

Rose Dugdale,
a onetime debutante and member of the upper-most English crust whose “coming out” in 1958 was the last to involve a face-to-face with Queen

Elizabeth II
; Dugdale agreed to do it only if her father allowed her to apply to Oxford. He did, thinking she would never get in. She did, at one point staging a much-publicized invasion of the all-male Oxford Union debating society, dressed as a male. After Oxford, she earned a degree in philosophy in the U.S. and then a doctorate in economics at the University of London—which explains the “Dr. Dugdale” in the headlines recounting her later crimes. What she became beyond all else was a radical reconciled to violence, especially concerning the Irish “Troubles” and her support for the Irish Republican Army.

Directed by

David Harvey,
whose record includes a number of excitable docs, “The Heiress and the Heist” is certainly no tribute to Dugdale; one of the more damning conclusions about her activities on behalf of the Provisional IRA was that the IRA disavowed them; she was far too impulsive and erratic for an organization whose brand was about strategic precision. But while Dugdale has few fans among the people interviewed, the fascinating stories are multiple.

The first involves the deep dive Mr. Harvey does into the world Dugdale rejected. (She would be sentenced to nine years in prison, where she became the first inmate to give birth in an Irish correctional facility.) Schoolmates such as Virginia Ironside and

Edwina Currie
(later a Conservative MP and health minister in the Thatcher government) provide a marvelous picture of what education and society were like for girls in postwar England; journalists and authors, among them

David Davin
-Power and Dugdale biographer

Anthony Amore
(“The Woman Who Stole Vermeer”) put her later crimes in perspective.

The most sensational of these was the 1974 robbery of the epic Russborough House, from which a gang led by Dugdale—who knew which paintings to steal—made off with works by Hals, Gainsborough, Goya and Vermeer. The aim was to ransom the paintings back in exchange for the freedom of hunger-striking IRA prisoners. It is a riveting account, though the owners of Russborough—and the art, and who were the injured victims in that case—might have been worth their own movie: The philanthropic

Arthur Beit’s
fortune was founded in South African diamond mines; his wife, Clementine, was a cousin of the famous Mitford sisters. Another cousin married

Winston Churchill.
Director Harvey isn’t breaking any new ground in nonfiction filmmaking, but he makes great use of the couple’s background, without turning the sequence into a digression.

Neither does “The Heiress and the Heist” feel anything like a celebration or romantic ballad, despite the time devoted to Dugdale herself. It isn’t a clinical examination of crime, or ’70s politics, or crime and ’70s politics; it maintains a distance from Dugdale and her husband-accomplice

Eddie Gallagher,
neither of whom agreed to be interviewed, which is too bad: What the series could have used was the perspective of the perpetrators—their regrets, or their defiance, but something to better explain themselves. As it is, the series plays out like a country song, with bombs.