In 1994 a thirteen year old boy in Texas went missing. Four years later his family receive a phone call reporting that the boy has been found in Spain. A family member flies to Spain to pick up the boy and takes him home to rejoin his family. Nicholas Barclay has been found. Nicholas Barclay now has an accent, different coloured hair and eyes, and no real memory of his time before his disappearance. Nicholas Barclay is actually French con man Frédéric Bourdin and this is all horribly real.
The documentary is structured around a single interview with Frédéric Bourdin as he takes us through the events of the deception from his point of view. We are always told up front that Bourdin is impersonating Nicholas. Where the intrigue lies is in how he gets away with his ruse and why Nicholas’ family would buy into what becomes an increasingly ludicrous claim.
As the macabre story unfolds Bourdin’s testimony is backed up and undermined by interviews with Nicholas’ family, an FBI agent, and a local private investigator. As certain incidents are told from various angles intriguing contradictions arise. Seemingly unimportant details cannot be agreed on and this becomes a fascination all on its own. Are people simply misremembering the most dramatic events in their life or are some people lying? I found myself believe wholly in whoever was being interviewed at any one time but would then be forced to doubt their testimony the moment someone else starts talking.
The Imposter is not the straightforward story of a master impersonator but a twisty tale about deception. The deception of one man to a family and the deception of a mother/sister to themselves. Every time you think you have a grip on what is happening the film will pull the rug from under you only to reveal another, equally pullable, rug underneath. Bourdin is given the floor for much of the film and it is in watching him talk that you start to understand how such a deception might work. He is a charismatic and convincing man. As much as I abhorred his actions I found myself gradually sympathising and even worrying about the French trickster. The moment you scoff at a family for believing that he is their son Bourdin will draw you in himself.
Aside from the interviews the documentary is made up of cinematic dramatisations of the story as it is told by Bourdin and the victims of his deception. The dramatisation was done very well; it never takes sides instead just showing the story as it is being described at the time. The test with any theatrically released documentary is whether it has the visuals to justify the big screen and this truly did. The dramatisations had a real filmic quality; more Hollywood than Crimewatch. Adam O’Brian gives a fantastic performance in what will be an overlooked role as the fictional version of Bourdin. The fact that he was almost indistinguishable from the real McCoy is a true credit and was at times quite creepy considering I was watching the film whilst sat next to O’Brian himself.
The Imposter is fantastic. It has been a long time since I have seen such a gripping and tragic documentary. Director Bart Layton has something of a masterpiece on his hands.