Synopsis: A documentary centered on a young Frenchman who claims to a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son, Nicholas Barclay who has been missing for 3 years
The cliche of “if this story wasn’t true you wouldn’t believe it” is actually applicable for The Imposter. If you presented this to me as a fictional thriller I would have lost patience with the amount of suspended disbelief required to get me through the last act. A 23 year old Frenchman passing himself off as a 16 year old missing American boy, fooling everyone including the boy’s family. But this happened, factually, as presented, in 1997. Amazing.
I distinctly remember about 25 or 30 minutes into watching The Imposter thinking “how have I not heard of this story”. Such was the remarkable sequence of events that led to French conman Frederic Bourdin making his way from the streets of Spain to the home of missing Texas boy Nicholas Barclay, conning everyone from the Spanish authorities, to the FBI and ultimately Barclay’s family. I can only think because I was 13 when this happened and it was the same year Princess Di kissed the dirt that it just passed me by.
The story is told primarily from two perspectives. Firstly from the perspective of Bourdin, who took on the identity of Barclay. There is something immediately creepy about Bourdin. Even though I didn’t know the full details of the story I knew it was going to be bad. So it was jarring to see him talk so proudly about each of his achievements along the way. Each successful stage he manages to pull the wool over the eyes of a grieving family, he beams with pride. He portrays himself as this abused child who wanted nothing more than to have a family of his own and saw taking the identity of a missing child as a way of integrating his way into that home. He comes across as someone who started a snowball rolling that got out of control and he couldn’t stop it. But all the time I felt like I was being conned myself. Something was off.
The second perspective is from Barclay’s older sister Carey Gibson. While her husband and Barclay’s mother also feature regularly as talking heads it was Gibson who was the central family figure in confirming Bourdin as her missing brother. You genuinely get the sense of shame and embarrassment all the way through that she was the one who bought him “home”.
I defy anyone not to say either out loud or in their heads at several points “how did you not see he was NOT YOUR KID?!?” To put it into perspective as is pointed out very early on; Nicholas Barclay was a blonde haired, blue eyed, American boy who went missing in 1994 walking home from a basketball game. He was a confident, outgoing, streetwise kid. Bourdin was a 23 year old, dark haired, brown eyed, French/Algerian who spoke English with a distinctive French accent. Yeah, not even close. The thing is though of all the people he convinced he was this missing, now 16 year old, kid the family are actually the easiest to believe getting fooled. Not because he was convincing but because you get the sense they wanted sooooooo badly to believe their son was back they were willing to overlook the obvious flaws in Bourdin’s potrayal of Nicholas. More disconcertingly was how easily he fooled the American Embassy, Spanish authorities and FBI, none of whom had anything emotionally invested in believing him but none of whom wanted to put their hands up and say “yeah, I don’t think this Mediterranean dude with brown eyes and 5 o’clock shadow is the 6 year old blonde American kid he is telling you he is”.
It’s difficult to talk at length about the movie without feeling like I am giving something away, so I will refrain from talking anymore about the story. I’ll finish on how impressed I was with Bart Layton’s recreations that punctuate the film. His ability to frame and build tension through slow zooms, lingering pan shots, lens flares and traditional thriller tropes like heavy rain was really impressive. His storytelling gave the whole thing a genuine Hitchcock feel. In fact the story could easily have been a Hitchcock thriller about stolen identity if it was about a middle aged man rather than a young boy. It reminded me a lot of Kevin McDonald’s Touching The Void in that respect and I wouldn’t be surprised if Layton follows in his footsteps of doing fiction after this.
Conclusion: The most gripping thriller I have seen in a long time, don’t eat while watching it otherwise you’ll spill food every time you sit with your mouth gaping open. With recent efforts like Senna and Restrepo it feels like we are in a high watermark era of high tension documentary film making. The Imposter lives up to that standard. Must see viewing.
Verdict: Must Watch
Taglines: There are two sides to every lie
Director: Bart Layton – British born documentary director and producer who cut his teeth in TV fly on the wall documentaries.
Cast (As themselves): Frederic Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverley Dollarhide, Charlie Parker
Available on Blinkbox streaming