Tuesday, 25 September 2012

'The Imposter' review:

On a conceptual level, a documentary that turns a very real tragedy into a slick, edge-of-your-seat thriller occupies distinctly grey moral territory. Especially considering the tragedy at the heart of Bart Layton's 'The Imposter' is the disappearance (and presumed death) of a 13 year-old child, Texan Nicholas Barclay, and the French confidence trickster who stole the boy's identity three years later. Yet the film just about carries it off without seeming crass, partly because it focuses on the titular imposter and his gripping story, but mostly because it is so very well made. Energetic, well-paced, stylishly edited together: 'The Imposter' is an entirely cinematic documentary and highly entertaining - even if that ultimately feels a little twisted.

The film tells the remarkable, scarcely credible, true story of how Frédéric Bourdin fooled -among others - the Spanish police, the FBI, US immigration officials (who issued him an American passport) and, depending on your viewpoint, the Barclay family themselves into believing he was the missing Nicholas - all in spite of his thick French accent and wildly different appearance (including having different coloured eyes). It tells how, not satisfied to have merely gotten away with that impressive swindle, he courted the attention of the American media and gave interviews telling a harrowing story of how he was abducted as part of an international military conspiracy, procuring children for the sexual gratification of officers - an outlandish claim which led to an official government investigation into the matter.

Throughout its twists and turns, the film poses questions about the Barclay's apparent willingness to be deceived: did they simply want to believe they had found their child? Or rather, did the family decide to use Bourdin's claim in order to cover up their own murder of the boy? That's a question the filmmakers can't answer definitively, with no evidence ever brought against the family and with Nicholas still officially a missing person, yet the question of how Bourdin had been able to con them - and so many others - despite his own obvious mental fragility and flimsy cover story, hangs over the entire movie.

For his part Bourdin makes for a compelling narrator, telling his story with an infectious enthusiasm, whilst the decision to inter-cut interview footage with polished re-enactment segments only adds to the sense that this is a great true crime thriller that only happens to be a documentary.

'The Imposter' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

1 comment:

  1. What I found most disturbing about this documentary was how likeable Bourdin is. You find yourself truly rooting for him to succeed, despite the emotional turmoil you know it will cause, and later on when the allegations start flying around I know that I personally found myself becoming fearful for his safety and resentful toward the family themselves. On reflection I feel manipulated by this; after all there is no evidence that they committed any crime whatsoever, and that Bourdin is able to introduce such feelings in the viewer is both fascinating and distressing. It made me question my emotional instincts throughout. In a sense it makes it easy to understand why he was accepted as readily as he was; he is in fact a well versed and experienced impersonator with years of practice so it's perhaps unsurprising he got as far as he did. The whole thing has left me rather impressed but confused as to how it left me feeling as I did; was it clever directing, or just the personalities of those involved?