“The Imposter” tells a strange bordering on improbable tale in a manner that is certainly unconventional and perhaps adds another layer of mystery to a true-life crime story. So the debate you’ll have as you head home from the cinema afterwards is not only about the bizarre story itself but whether filmmaker Bart Layton added to the confusion.
However you resolve this, if indeed you do, it will be a lively discussion.
Layton’s approach is not without precedent. Early in his illustrious documentary career, Errol Morris used reenactments of a crime scene and police investigation in “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) to dramatize his belief that a corrupt justice system in Texas wrongly convicted a man.
Here British documentarian Layton scores interviews with the key players in a stranger-than-fiction case but also cuts in dramatizations that, in his words, “attempt to illustrate each person’s version of what happened.” In other words, throw “Rashoman” into the mix.
First, the bizarre facts, at least the ones everyone can agree on: Nicholas Barclay, then 13, disappeared from his home town of San Antonio, Texas, on June 1, 1994. Then on October 7, 1997, a boy turns up in Linares, Spain. After conversations with him by police and eventually the U.S. consul at the American Embassy in Madrid, the Texas family is told that this youth may be their missing son.
His older sister flies to Spain, does identify the boy as her brother Nicholas and a U.S. passport is issued to him that allows him to return home. One problem: The Barclay’s blonde, blue-eyed boy now has dark skin and eyes and speaks with a French accent. He also looks a good deal older.
Yet he lives with the family for nearly five months as Nicholas until a stubborn local detective and an FBI agent ferret out the truth: The imposter is a French national, 23 years of age, who has a long career of identity theft, usually involving lost children, but not with any criminal goal but rather, or so it would seem, as a young man in search of the love and family denied to him in his own childhood.
That latter is only supposition, however, and not a verifiable fact. So the questions the film addresses are:
- How did he get away with this so long?
- Why did the family not recognize the obvious?
- What greater crime if any were the Barclays attempting to conceal?
Layton (pictured right) interviews the imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin, who is strangely unrepentant, sometimes warm and charming and other times cold and belligerent. Layton also gets in front of the camera Nicholas’ mother Beverly older sister Carey, uncle Bryant and nephew Codey.
He also talks to Federal Agent Nancy Fisher, child psychologist Bruce Perry and perhaps the key figure, an aging private eye Charlie Parker, who astonishingly was the first to declare, as in the child’s fairy tale, that the emperor has no clothes.
Now with this lineup of people, Layton had his film: Take a few shots around the family home and other Texas and Spanish sites and you’re done. Yet Layton, as I’ve said, stages reenactments, right from the opening moments, often on rainy streets or in darkened homes.
This opens up the film up to a noirish mood that gathers in all sort of conspiracy theories. Charlie Parker and even Bourdin himself propose that the family so eagerly welcomed the replacement Nicholas because some of them didn’t want any more police scrutiny of their missing child. They knew — according to this theory — all too well what really happened.
It seems Nicholas was a troubled child and that he had a half-brother who was a junky. Since that man was now dead, it’s pretty easy to pin a murder on him. Charlie even starts digging up the yard of the house where Nicholas lived at the time of his disappearance.
Were this fiction, a writer has all sorts of directions to go from here. But this is not fiction and potential story lines head out in all directions. It’s called the inconvenience of real facts and unreliable memories.
Consequently, “The Imposter” turns conflicting story lines and unresolved mysteries to its own advantage. You in the audience get to play detective and figure out who did what and who is telling the truth. Perhaps everyone believes he or she is telling the truth, which is all the more confounding.
The film touches on so many aspects of human foibles including shaky memories, the allure of false hope, the psychology of secrets and lies and the meaning of family itself. It has a memorable cast of characters and touches on the shadowy world of child disappearances.
What’s more it’s all true — except for the parts that aren’t.
Opens: July 13, 2012 in New York; additional cities including L.A. August 3 (Indomina Releasing)
Production companies: A&E Indie Films, Film 4 and Channel 4 present a RAW production in association with Red Box FIlms and Passion Pictures
Director: Bart Layton
Producer: Dimitri Doganis
Executive producers: John Battsek, Simon Chinn, Molly Thompson, Robert Debitetto, Robert Sharenow, Katherine Butler, Tabitha Jackson
Directors of photography: Erik Alexander WIlson, Lynda Hall
Music: Anne Nikitin
Editor: Andrew Hulme
R rating, 98 minutes