Review: The Imposter

Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Frédéric Bourdain
Rating: 15

Keeping it in the family.

It’s hard to know where to start with this one – any attempt to summarise it is inevitably going to make it sound like a far-fetched Hollywood thriller, rather than a documentary dramatising events that actually happened. It explores the story of twentysomething Frenchman Frédéric Bourdain who, through a series of bizarre coincidences, passes himself off as missing Texan teenager Nicholas Barclay. Despite several factors that would seem to complicate such a task – a heavy French accent, and his different hair and eye colour to the missing boy – he manages to succeed in convincing the family that he is their son. The documentary interviews Bourdain and several members of the family about the incident, and explores how Bourdain’s fraud was eventually revealed by private investigator Charlie Parker and FBI agent Nancy Fisher.

See, I told you it sounded thoroughly implausible.

And yet, that’s what makes this such a fascinating film. It IS completely unbelievable, and that makes watching the accounts a very unsettling experience. It’s a film that raises more questions than it provides answers for, and yet that ends up being one of its greatest strengths: it’s as much of a conversation piece as it is a film, and it’s certainly something that sits with you long after leaving the cinema.

One of the curious things about this film is why the Barclay family agreed to take part in the first place. It’s almost impossible for them to come out of it well – at best they were likely to look like idiots, for being fooled for so long by someone claiming to be their son despite sharing almost no characteristics with him. And at worst – well, several participants in the film suggest that there was more to Nicholas’s disappearance than the family were letting on, and that they might have been involved somehow. There’s no conclusive evidence on that front, and it’s certainly not for me to point fingers at anyone, but again it just makes me admire their chutzpah for taking part. I suppose at the very least they felt they’d rather tell the story themselves than have someone else tell it, but even in their hands, it’s a strange, confusing and not wholly convincing tale.

Looking for sympathetic characters in this film is a tough task. Even “the good guys” aren’t always particularly heroic: although Charlie Parker is presented as someone doggedly searching for the truth, he’s also a fairly stock grubby PI type, and fairly unashamedly so. One of the few characters I had some sympathy with was Nicholas’s sister Carey – for various reasons she was the one who had the responsibility of retrieving the person claiming to be her brother from Spain, and to hear the film tell the story, there was a great deal of emotional responsibility sitting on her shoulders in doing this. In her talking-head segments, there’s a strong sense that she feels to blame for what happened, but also that she was in an impossible position: that she didn’t feel able to come back without him, and that she subconsciously rejected any suggestion that it might not be him because, well, why wouldn’t it be?

Bourdain himself is a fascinating character – there’s no sense at all that he feels any guilt or repentance over what he did. If anything, he seems pretty pleased with himself that he managed to get a film made about himself. Although what he did was repellant, you can appreciate the charisma that made him think he was capable of pulling this off, and perhaps why he got away with it for so long.

By rights, this ought to be a frustrating film – as I mentioned above, it doesn’t solve the mystery of why the family believed this man to be Nicholas, or exactly what happened to Nicholas. Not only that, but it’s pretty much impossible to tell which, if any, of its subjects are being entirely truthful – certainly, it seems wise to take most of what the family says with a pinch of salt. But Layton has crafted this film well, and made a virtue out of all the unanswered questions, inviting us to go away and think about this situation he’s presented us with. I was certainly thinking about it for a very long time afterwards.

Coming Attractions:
The Sweeney: You’re fahckin nicked, sunshine.
Lawless: Turns out it’s not a biopic of the star of Xena: Warrior Princess. I’m so disappointed.
Skyfall: Some new spy franchise or something? Looks rubbish.
Anna Karenina: Mmm, lavish.

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