By Ali May
The Imposter is a story of desperation, intrigue and lies which keeps you guessing until the very end. Can a family really want their son back so badly that they will accept a complete stranger into their house, or are they trying to conceal an even darker secret?
Nicholas Barclay was 13 years old when he disappeared without a trace from his hometown in Texas. Three and a half years later and thousands of miles away in a small Spanish village he mysteriously reappears with a story of abduction, torture and rape. His family is ecstatic that he has been found and Nicholas is brought home, but not all is as it seems. The boy bears few of the same distinguishing marks he once had, he now only speaks with a French accent and the once blond Nick has returned with a dark, Mediterranean complexion. Most intriguingly though – why doesn't the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies?
Director Bart Layton lets us in on it pretty much from the beginning; the Nicholas who is reunited with his family is a fake, a 23-year-old French drifter named Frederic Bourdin. As Bourdin confesses he unravels the story for us, taking us inside the mind of a con artist and smugly talking us through the exploitation of his new family. Bourdin may be a monster, but he’s a dangerously charismatic one and his charm is disarming. You soon realise how he could quite easily have sucked everyone in, but was he playing a more dangerous game than he realized?
Bourdin’s problem was that his impersonation succeeded too well. The price of pulling off such a bold impersonation was public attention and it wasn’t long before various parties became interested in Nick’s story. As private investigator Charlie Parker and FBI Special Agent Nancy Fisher begin to unravel this imposter’s web of deceit, the family start to cling increasingly tightly to their “Nick”. By now it is obvious that the family must have their suspicions but they refuse to allow DNA tests that might prove conclusively whether he really is the missing Nicholas. Something just isn’t right. Layton is playing with you, keeping you guessing not only what happened but also what the film is actually about. Is it a tragic story of a family’s desperation, is it an exposé of one of the most ambitious cons ever pulled off or is it something much darker?
The Imposter is beautifully shot in a playful style, blurring the boundaries between interview and drama re-enactment. Layton really does justice to the manner in which Bourdin seems to toy with the family, using a mix of news footage, interviews and convincing recreations to help glue the pieces of this mystery together. Layton’s use of drama re-enactment is surprisingly slick, adding depth and suspense to the story. In fact the dramatisation of a true story that is so far-fetched, juxtaposed with the interviews cleverly seems to blur the line between fact and fiction, constantly keeping you on your toes.
It’s a spellbinding climax, but abrupt and unsatisfying; you leave with more questions than answers. It hints at a real murder mystery, a true-life whodunit but there is no real substance to the accusations flung around the film and none of our questions are ever fully answered. Suddenly this stranger than fiction story loses some of its mystique but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I was hooked right from the start – despite its failings it is still a very well crafted, beautifully shot and watchable documentary and I highly recommend it.
The Imposter is released in UK cinemas on 24th August
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