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Posts Tagged ‘The Imposter’

Ah, how nice it is to go back the Oxford Phoenix, my favourite cinema in the city and the site of what’s still the best set of toilet doors I’ve ever seen. The place seems to have had a bit of a refurb over the summer, the only noticeable sign of which being the disappearance of the cupholders on the seats. I wasn’t in the smaller screen today, so I’ve no idea if they’ve improved the rake or not, but here’s hoping.

Bit of a toss-up this week between going to see Shadow Dancer and The Imposter (NB: this is how it’s spelt on the title card), and purely for scheduling reasons I chose the latter. Bart Layton’s film is yet another strong documentary – many of this year’s really surprising stories feel like they’ve been non-fictional (no surprise, really, that the executive producer of this film is Simon Chinn, who was also responsible for such brilliant previous docs as Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim and Man on Wire). Now some documentaries are basically saying ‘If you look closely at this, it’s really much more interesting than you thought’, while others are actually saying ‘This is a completely astonishing story which you’re probably totally ignorant of’. The Imposter is very much in the latter vein.

In 1994, Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy living in San Antonio, Texas, disappeared. According to the family, the case was not well-investigated by the police and for years there was no clue as to Nicholas’ whereabouts. Then, in 1997, they received a phone call giving them extraordinary news: Nicholas had been found alive, in Linares, Spain.

Nicholas’ sister Carey flew to Linares, confirmed that this really was her brother, and brought him home for an emotional reunion. However, given that this film is called The Imposter, you may have rumbled to the fact that this is not the touching, life-affirming tale it sounds like. Officials investigating Nicholas’ kidnapping started to pick up on tiny details which made them vaguely suspicious and prompted delicate questions. Such as: why did Nicholas now speak with a French accent? Why had his eyes changed colour from blue to brown? And why, as a boy of 16, did Nicholas look like he was in his mid-20s?

Put like that, the story sounds absurd, but this really does appear to have been a genuine case. Perhaps awareness of how implausible it all sounds has influenced the way Layton has shaped his narrative – because the film never tries to mislead the audience in any way. The imposter himself appears as a talking head giving his recollection of events, alongside members of Nicholas’ family (none of whom possess the same surname as the disappeared boy, a fact which some might suggest to be indicative – but I’m getting ahead of myself), from virtually the beginning of the story.

And the film is carefully framed, emphasising that this story appears to have started as the genuine disappearance of a boy whose family were truly devastated and missed him terribly. This does serve to ground events, and for a large part of the film I wondered whether the director had made a misstep by not presenting the imposter’s rather self-serving account in a more critical light, and by stressing the absurdity of Nicholas’ family not recognising the fake the first time they laid eyes on him.

But as the film progresses it becomes clear that this story has been assembled with a great deal of thought and subtlety – it becomes not so much about the imposter choosing to steal Nicholas’ identity as his family’s choice (and it’s discussed as such) to accept the imposter as their relative. Did they simply miss the boy so much that they were prepared to overlook some of the ridiculous inconsistencies involved in his return? Or, as some other investigators and the imposter himself allege (without, it must be said, any hard evidence), did they have rather darker motives in wanting Nicholas to be believed alive, due to their knowing more about the circumstances of his vanishing than they are prepared to admit?

It’s a remarkable story and well-told here – in, it must be said, the classic style: a mixture of talking head interviews and dramatic reconstructions of key events. I suppose directorial whistles and bells and fancy animations could have been inserted into the film, but I can’t see how they would substantially have improved it. Neither, I suspect, would it have been very easy to do this as a based-on-a-true-story dramatisation – there’s the credibility issue to take into account, but also the fact what starts as a dark and peculiar story becomes positively stygian and bizarre as it proceeds. There’s also the lack of any real sense of closure, too: but in some ways this works in the film’s favour – the way the narrative ends without any kind of resolution, only a dreadful sense of festering secrets, makes it very memorable.

Then again, this may just be the director’s art on display, because one could certainly argue that the startling final act of The Imposter is based on not much more than insinuations and suggestions, many of them coming from a pathologically deceitful individual. In which case this is another case of a documentary dipping into the bag of tricks more usually associated with narrative film-making. If so, then the very least one can say is that this is a successful fusion which tells an astounding story.

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