By Ross Maclean
Following closely in the footsteps of films like James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, Bart Layton’s feature-length documentary The Imposter weaves a tale of true-life intrigue with genuine cinematic flair. Through the use of archive footage, new interviews with the people involved and dramatised reconstructions it tells the most fantastically preposterous screen story, if only it weren’t for the fact it all actually happened.
When thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in San Antonio, Texas in 1994 no-one could have foreseen that three years later someone would turn up halfway across the world in Spain claiming to be him. The only problem being that this person looked considerably older, had dark hair and eyes – unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nicholas – and didn’t appear to be American.
What follows are a remarkable series of events whereby Nicholas’ family are convinced this man, who has falsely assumed his identity, is telling the truth. As the film progresses, revelation is heaped upon revelation as more of the story comes to light regarding those missing years and some of the twists and turns will leave you inhaling deeply as your heart pounds.
The whole sorry tale is recounted matter-of-factly by the perpetrator of these lies, Frédéric Bourdin, and it makes for compelling viewing. Interviews with family members largely focus on Nicholas’ sister Carey, who went to Spain to collect this imposter, and mother Beverley who is an enigmatic presence. As they recall first seeing their son and brother returned they never betray an ounce of apprehension about his claims.
There’s artistry in the way the reconstructions segue into interview and vice versa that drives the narrative. There’s never a moment where your mind is able to second guess proceedings before they unfold on screen. It has been structured so meticulously in such a way as to leave you confounded with each advancement and begging for more.
There is an undeniable coolness to the way it is told considering the emotive nature of the subject matter. There’s barely a shred of emotion shown in any of the testimonies, family or otherwise, but it’s this detachment that fascinates even more. The lack of anger from the family as they describe their experience is strangely unsettling.
There is an argument to be made that the film gives Bourdin an outlet when he really doesn’t deserve one but be sure that he doesn’t come out of it well. He certainly doesn’t seem remorseful for perpetuating these lies. Wonderfully, the aggrieved family get the last word - a beautiful summation of what must surely be the audience’s feelings.
It’s not an ‘issues’ documentary or crusade of any type, although it clearly treads a path through some very sensitive areas. Instead it’s a portrait of a very disturbed man and attempts to reconcile this apparently well-adjusted man of the present day with the callousness of his actions of fifteen years ago. It’s a story of one family’s desperation to cling onto any vestige of hope to the extent that they would be willing to overlook such exceptional circumstances.
By the time a private investigator shows up midway through, it takes on qualities of a whodunnit. Although it falls under the documentary category and one would expect hard facts, it’s coldly engaging in that you’re never quite sure who is telling the truth and to what extent. With such a consummate liar at its centre there’s little in the way of real certainty.
The Imposter is one of those rare documentaries that comes along offering an audience a degree of satisfaction on various levels and a certainty of discussion afterwards. On the surface it’s an unpredictable story so outlandish that it could only be true but if you’re willing to dig deeper there’s an equally fascinating psychological study that’s never overplayed in the narrative.
Whether you consider yourself a fan of documentaries or not, this is required viewing. Bart Layton’s film is an accomplished work that’s richly cinematic and thoroughly gripping while never going for easy opportunities to cast judgement.