EIFF 2012: ‘The Imposter’ review


Bart Layton’s The Imposter (2012) is a prime exponent of how fact can sometimes be far stranger than fiction. This delicately constructed documentary tells the remarkable true story of how French con artist Frédéric Bourdin duped a Texan family and the American government into believing he was Nicholas Barclay – a young boy missing, presumed dead.

In 1994, the 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his parents home in San Antonio. Three year later his family had all but given up on ever finding him alive when all of a sudden a miracle occurred – they received a call from the other side of the world claiming to have found their missing son. Nicholas’ eldest sister set of for Spain to partake in this remarkable reunion and whilst Nicholas appeared noticeably different to when she last saw him her unconditional faith and desire to find her brother meant she was blinded to the obvious inconsistencies he displayed.

In fact, the boy she escorted home to the US was in fact a con artist, concealing an elaborate lie which had spiralled out of control – to the point it was so extravagant and preposterous that he was trusted not only by the Barclay family but the FBI – after all why would a family take in a stranger believing he was one of them, let alone a stranger from a whole other country?

The strength of The Imposter lies not in its remarkable true story but in how it’s extraordinary tale has been articulated by Layton. Using a variety of intelligent edits and dreamlike dramatisations to continuously switch the audiences perceptions of everyone on screen the film’s pace never dips below enthralling – taking the raw essence of this incredible real story and milking ever last piece of drama and tension from its outlandish saga. Effortlessly switching from an eye-opening real life documentary to a full-blown investigatory thriller, The Imposter constantly surprises its audience with numerous unexpected twists and turns and thus entertains far more than your conventional documentary could ever aspire to achieve.

On the surface, The Imposter appears to be a simple re-telling of a complex and intriguing serious of occurrences, yet the film’s meticulously constructed narrative arc reveals a story with far more depth and integrity. Less about the tale of an abducted child and the man who stole his identity, Layton has created a fascinating psychological examination of the complex nature behind truth and lies. Thanks to his ability to harvest some relaxed, revealing and often hilarious testimonies from his subjects, Layton has created a film with no conclusive truths, instead offering the audience a mind-bending series of enlightening interviews, where it quickly becomes difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction.

After initially feeling like it’s played its trump card too early, The Imposter quickly transforms into one of those rare documentaries where the truth appears so inflated and implausible that it would never conceivably work as a piece of fiction. A fascinating and thought-provoking film which deserves all the plaudits it’s received.

The 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 20 June-1 July, 2012. For more of our EIFF 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble