This engaging documentary shows the story of how a 23-year old Frenchman convinced a Texan family that he was their 16-year old son who had gone missing 4 years earlier. This premise alone is shocking enough, but in fact the story unravels in a way that one wouldn’t expect; while it’s clear from the title that the discovered ‘Nicholas’ is not who he seems, it is chilling when you start to question the truth of the victims – the Barclay family themselves. The giant elephant in the room that hangs over the entire film boils down to a single question: how did his own family not recognise him? Were they so desperate from grief that they clung to hope, or were they clutching a cover for a deeper secret? Director Bart Layton turns this true story into a gripping suspense thriller.
The Imposter‘s dramatisation of events is mixed perfectly with home-video footage and interviews. Many of said dramatisations are filmed in the actual locations, which helps ground the film in reality. The real-life events lasted about 5 months, but Layton manages to condense this effortlessly into 98 minutes, without omitting any integral moments or skimming through scenes.
All of the characters are intriguing, but the titular imposter, Frederic Bourdin, is by far the star. The interview with Bourdin was filmed long before they had enough funding for the rest of the project, and this is clear as Bourdin’s testimony forms the solid backbone of the film. He has lied to hundreds of families and this compulsion makes us desperate to know his real past, his real family, his real identity. But he is constantly playing a role. Even in the interviews as ‘himself’, he is drawing the audience in, convincing us that he is a good guy, charming even. He is cocky, making jokes, smirking when reflecting on how he “won”. To convince the Barclays that he was their son he got three tattoos and dyed his hair, but there was one fundamental difference that could not be changed: his eye colour. The original Nicholas Barclay was blonde and blue-eyed; Bourdin had newly dyed blonde hair, but was unable to change his brown eyes to match their son’s.
Which brings us to the Barclays. The absence of Jason, Nicholas’ older half-brother and the last person to speak to him alive, is heavily felt. His version of events would have greatly added to the film, but the interviews from his mother, sister and brother-in-law more than make up for this.
It is both worrying and fascinating how easily Frederic Bourdin manipulates the people around him to get his way. But is he the only liar in this documentary? The film has a similar flavour to Capturing the Friedmans (2003); a serious look at guilt and innocence, truth and lies. Layton and producer, Dimitri Doganis, set out to make a film that was impartial, purely laying out the facts for the audience. This is partly how they managed to convince the family to even participate, as they would finally be able to tell their version of the story. But I think most audience members will leave the cinema with a fairly similar idea of what they believe happened to the real Nicholas Barclay, which remains the great, overlooked tragedy.