You couldn’t make this stuff up – and no one would buy it as fiction. But as a documentary, it’s a different matter. In June of 1994, the Barclay family of San Antonio, Texas, were distraught when their 13-year-old son Nicholas went missing. Days and months passed with no news, until the phone rang three years later. The Spanish police had picked up a young person cowering in a phone booth. He said he was Nicholas Barclay.
Older sister Carey made the trip to Spain to bring her brother back to Texas and, once there, discovered an anxious figure, traumatised by kidnapping and sexual abuse. And the Nicholas who the family welcomed back was not the same person who’d left home. How on earth could his mother and siblings not realise they were now sharing their lives with an imposter? In fact, the person they had taken in was Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian man with a troubled past and history of manipulative behaviour.
The title of this enterprising true-life puzzler by British first-timer Bart Layton is a giveaway. But it’s also an indication that this spoiler doesn’t answer all the questions. For that, Layton allows the participants to tell it their way, piecing together interviews with the family, Bourdin, US embassy officials, the FBI, and a shit-stirring private eye called Charlie Parker.
Who to believe? Were the Barclays foolishly gullible or hiding a darker secret? How could the authorities allow things to get as far as they did? There are more than two sides to the story, and as we try to gauge its exact dimensions, Layton daringly adds another layer of storytelling manipulation, visualising elements of the individual testimonies in blatantly stylised form and drawing on the language of film noir. Usually in docs, we rely on reconstructions to mark out a sort of truth. Here the images reflect the questionable perspectives of each teller. Can we trust the words? Or the pictures? Or neither?
Some might find this degree of uncertainty almost dizzying. Others might wonder if the hall-of-mirrors approach takes us away from the tragedy of the lost child. It’s possible, though, to have sympathy with both those points yet still find ‘The Imposter’ startling, provocative, witty and affecting, squaring such seemingly conflicting responses with the overriding recognition that the truth is far more slippery than we’d care to admit. The result is as smart as it is confident, worthy of comparison to such documentary big-hitters as ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’, and quite a surprise coming from a Brit with no background in features. See it and be truly beguiled.