Review: The Imposter (2012)

Director: Bart Layton

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

The dark tale at the heart of The Imposter is a documentary director’s dream. Indeed, Bart Layton must be thanking his lucky stars, because he found a treasure trove of deceit, desperation and twists upon twists, all of it real. The story was adapted previously as limp Ellen Barkin flick Chameleon, but in a case like this there’s nothing to compare to the unvarnished truth.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, without any trace. His family (mother Beverly, sister Carey, brother-in-law Bryan) detail their anguish and their efforts to find him, as home video footage reveals a bright blonde young man, a typical teen. Grief turns to joy 40 months later as a blond teenager is found in Spain, and says his name is Nicholas Barclay. He’s the right age, the right height; he even bears the same tattoos. Upon questioning, the young man tells of his kidnapping, torture and assault at the hands of American military and his forced imprisonment in Spain before he managed to escape. It all sounds too far-fetched to be real, yet the authorities and consular staff are sufficiently convinced to allow the newly-found ‘Nicholas’ to return home, where his family give him a rapturous welcome. So far, so good but, while all this is happening, the audience will be scratching their heads over the details, such as how Nicholas now speaks with a distinctly French accent. An FBI agent and local PI express their suspicions, and only then do events really take a turn for the bizarre. If this were written by a jobbing Hollywood writer, it’d be laughed off the screen.

The Imposter catches you off-guard, not least because it features plenty of face time with Frederic Bourdin, the Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed to be a 13-year-old Texan due to an apparent addiction to attention. Bourdin, who had posed as a lost teen all over Europe prior to his American escapade, is both expectedly charming and repugnantly confident. He fleshes out the details in this unbelievable story, but that only serves to make it more incredible. His testimony is intercut with that of Nicholas’ family, and the hurt and pain is written all over their faces. Arguably, their duplicity and anger potentially makes them unsympathetic, but it does enrich the story all the more. It’s all too cruel and odd to be real, yet it is real, and it is utterly riveting.

Behind the camera Layton, a TV documentarian by trade, makes the most of this remarkable tale. His reconstructions of certain events have enough cinematic veneer to suggest he could progress into features, whilst the interviews and home footage are used sensitively; it’s a very even-handed account of a story where the line between fraudster and victim is threatened frequently. It also has flourishes of humour (Charlie Parker, the aforementioned PI, is more Smokey and the Bandit than Sherlock Holmes) and a genuine sense of mystery.Ultimately, The Imposter raises as many questions as it answers, but then we’re not dealing with studio fare here. No easy answers or happy endings are guaranteed, and the truth hurts.

The Imposter is a chronicle of people who have hurt and have been hurt. Like its subject Monsieur Bourdin, you’ll wonder where The Imposter will lead you, but that won’t stop you from being caught in its spell. As it so perfectly proves, truth is often stranger than any fiction.

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