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A bizarre, chilling, surprising & thoroughly enthralling 99-minute eye-popping experience.
There are far too few documentaries on general release so it's a rare pleasure to sit in a dark screening room with six other people to watch another example of bizarre real life unfold across the screen. The Imposter is one of those documentaries where you sit there with the sense of incredulity growing as every twist in the plot reveals itself. It's not as jaw-droppingly absurd as the excellent Tabloid and it isn't remotely funny, but it is a fascinating and compelling experience.
I'll qualify that; the story of The Imposter is fascinating while the manner in which it is presented to us upon the screen is absolutely compelling and worthy of the plaudits it has so far received, including a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and a gong in the same category at the Miami Film Festival.
In San Antonio, Texas on 13 June 1994, thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared. Three and a half years later, when his family's only hope was to find his remains and gain closure, they received word that Nicholas was alive and had been found in Spain. His elder sister, Carey, flew out to Spain to bring Nicholas home whereupon he unfolded a tale of kidnapping and abuse. However, blonde, blue-eyed American Nicolas had somehow become darker skinned, dark haired and French and now looked out onto the world through brown eyes. Yet the family still accepted him as their own! Told partly through interviews with the players including, incredibly, the imposter himself and dramatized interpretations of events, The Imposter gently reveals the events as private investigator Charlie Parker suspects Frédérick Bourdin's true identity and uncovers his history. It bears some resemblance to Le Retour de Martin Guerre (or Sommersby if you preferred the American adaptation) but there is no sign of altruism or a purity of intent from Bourdin. Just as you think you've understood the situation, another nugget of information widens the eyes even further until 'How could the family not know?' turns to 'Why did they decide not to know?' And still more questions arrive.
It's an incredible story where doubt is cast over the sanity and honesty of those at the heart of it. At one point, Nicholas' sister (the real one, not the version played by an actress) says with all sincerity, "Spain? That's, like, across the country!" It is plainly obvious we're not dealing with the brightest sparks. But being educationally challenged does not mean dishonesty is not a factor.
Director Bart Layton weaves the tale beautifully, never giving away too much in one go and his use of reconstruction blends perfectly with the genuine interviews. The use of real person and actor for each 'character' so often jars in TV documentaries leaving the viewer confused as to who s/he is watching on the screen. Here, Layton has cast perfectly and the dual appearances compliment each other, blending so it is neither noticeable nor important which version we are watching.
Star status is usually reserved for performers in feature films, not factual documentaries, but Bourdin is so relaxed, so matter of fact in the telling of his own version of events that he draws the viewer in and leaves us wanting to climb inside his head an know how his brain turns and how many teeth are missing from each cog.
The Imposter, though unlikely to enthuse as wide an audience as last year's Project Nim or Senna, is a bizarre, chilling, surprising and thoroughly enthralling 99-minute eye-opening experience.
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