The Imposter

Film, Documentaries
The Imposter

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.

By: Trevor Johnson


Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday August 24 2012
Duration: 99 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Bart Layton
Cast: Adam O'Brian
Anna Ruben

Average User Rating

4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:3
  • 3 star:1
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:0
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Honestly this is probably the best documentary I've ever seen in my life. In fact, it's the documentary that got me into documentaries in the first place. Perhaps it's because this story is just so unbelievable, perhaps it's because they are interviewing the perpetrator of the crime himself, I don't know. It tells the story of a man who pretends to be a child who was abducted from Texas some 10 years before. He manages to persuade the family that he is their son, despite having different colour hair and eyes to the boy that went missing. It's extremely chilling and you will be gripped from start to finish, guaranteed. 

Decent documentary which tails off in its final third. Like ARCHGATE, I`d have liked to have seen more back-story on the imposter.

love true stories & this one delivered. Has the package from start to finish

As beautifuly crafted (and almost as fine) as last years Dreams of a life. A couple of fat Kent plebs huffed out about half hour in, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Interesting, but agree with the comment about it being manipulative - it kept key characters hidden until halfway through and also some crucial information for a 'big reveal' kind of sensational thing. Left bad taste in mouth. Not sure what that comment below is on about... em obviously the end of a movie is often a denouement or a twist, so if you tell people about it it can have a serious spoiler effect, more so than revealing other parts - depends on the film obviously, but seems a bit daft not to recognise this.

More Catfish than Thin Blue Line but entertaining none the less If Freidkin is looking to make a sequel to Killer Joe, hes got the perfect cast with this lot

Loved it! See no more than the trailer, don't google the story..... It's a mad bad twisty ride, can't remember a documentary with a pace like this, the pace of an action packed thriller.

Loved it! See no more than the trailer, don't google the story..... It's a mad bad twisty ride, can't remember a documentary with a pace like this, the pace of an action packed thriller.