Sunday 19 August 2012

The Imposter review

The Imposter (15, 98 mins)
Director: Bart Layton
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

British filmmaker Bart Layton has managed to out-Herzog Herzog with this striking documentary account of the case of a missing boy, a vulnerable family and a brazen fraudster.

In 1994, 13 year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his Texas home town. Three years later in Spain, tourists came across a boy who seemingly had no identity but who, as we learn very early on, was actually a 23 year old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin.

Through resourcefulness, acting ability and a mountain of lies, Bourdin somehow convinced first the authorities, including child protection agencies and the FBI, and then the family that he was in fact Nicholas.

He returned to Texas to live with them, and through newly filmed interviews with Bourdin and Nicholas’ family, who even now speak in the context that what transpired was real, the story develops into a heartbreaking insight into what loss and grief can do to people looking for answers.

What’s most significant is their utter willingness to accept the boy as Nicholas, even though physically he’s completely different and speaks with a French accent. Whether this is delusion or something else, something more sinister, is only one of many questions raised.

Bourdin all the while remains a slippery yet fascinating character at the centre of it, a fantasist, possibly a sociopath, who is up front about what he’s done and well aware of it. He’s a complex guy, who back in 1997 played the role and played the odds by doing things like talking as little as possible so as not to be found out. The fact that he’s still able to elicit mixed feelings, and even occasional empathy in the viewer, is a testament to how good an actor he is.

But it’s the skill and good taste with which The Imposter is structured and assembled that really marks it as the remarkable and gripping tale it is, its mystery and cinematic elements giving it a freshness and thrust not found in many docs.

In truth there does come a point, perhaps around the halfway mark, that it seems as though the story has played out, and familiarity and repetition threatens to set in. But then just when you think it has exhausted its potential, it takes a turn into a whole new territory, introducing a private investigator and all manner of developments that cast fresh light on everyone involved.

Aided by atmospheric dramatic reconstructions, it evolves into a mesmerising thriller, increasing the pace and the intrigue as suspicions are raised about certain things. And where it’s all going to go is a question even this terrific film can’t answer.

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