Bart Layton | 99 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R
Some films benefit from knowing as little as possible going in; some are at their best when you know nothing at all. But that’s pretty much impossible — unless you go purely on someone’s “you’ll like this, trust me” recommendation about a film you’ve never even heard of, you’ll be aware of something. Normally this comes from a review or blurb, and you just have to trust that the reviewer or copywriter was kind enough to keep it spoiler-free.
BAFTA-winning drama-documentary The Imposter is a definite case of the less you know the better, and yet it’s been quite widely praised and pushed so that if you’ve heard of it you probably know what it’s about. Documentaries need that more than fiction films, because they have to fight to ‘cross over’. It’s arguable that Catfish suffered from the same problem of having to reveal too much in order to attract attention. But Catfish had the advantage that its Big Twist was at the end, meaning it went largely unspoiled — The Imposter’s is right at the start. I suppose this is because it’s a fairly well-documented news event (at appropriate junctures, the film is littered with clips from American media coverage), but also because it’s such an implausible story you have to be honest about it upfront.
So here’s what the film lets you in on in the opening moments: in 1993, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in Texas. In 1997, a boy claiming to be him surfaced… in Spain. He had Nicholas’ tattoos, but he had a French accent and the wrong colour eyes. And yet the first relative to see him, Nicholas’ older sister, gave a positive ID, and upon returning to America he was accepted into the family. Why did they take in such an obvious fraud?
The blurb on the DVD/Blu-ray cover will also tell you that much. And the thing is, the film is basically that story in more detail. There’s more at the end of it, of course — when the FBI get involved; when deeper questions get asked about what really happened to Nicholas — but for a good long while it’s putting flesh on the bones of a story you’ve already had sketched. While that has its plus points (just how a set of events so ridiculous you wouldn’t buy them in a fiction came to pass is naturally a fascinating tale), there’s the odd bit of thumb-twiddling while you wait for it to get to the inevitable.
For me, this was hindered rather than helped by Bart Layton’s flashy direction. This doesn’t look like your standard documentary (even the talking heads have a different visual feel), to the point where the line between archive footage/audio and dramatic recreation is blurred. It’s quite a straightforward retelling — Layton doesn’t indulge in the game of dramatising a lie only to reveal it was indeed a lie — but, nonetheless, it makes the documentary itself feel untrustworthy, just like its participants. Is that an intended effect? Arguably the film’s main theme is lies — the lies we tell ourselves, the truths we want to believe; confirmation bias, perhaps, though that term is never mentioned — but the documentary itself never lies to us… I don’t think. It just feels like it might be.
The story comes alive in the last half hour or so. Early on it is fascinating how fake-Nicholas sets the ball rolling, but then you just wait for everyone to cotton on. As things begin to unravel, however, the story moves in a slightly different direction — in my opinion, a more engrossing one, because it’s an area of the tale that isn’t covered in the blurb! Unfortunately, it has no definite ending. This is real life, that happens, and the objectivity of not forcing a conclusion or pushing an agenda is to the documentary’s favour; but it’s nonetheless a smidgen unsatisfying.
There’s no doubting The Imposter tells a bizarre and fascinating tale, but at times I felt it was one that might be better served through a solid Sunday supplement article than a feature-length documentary film. Layton’s over-eager style also grated occasionally, particularly when it drew attention to itself over the story it was trying to tell. Perhaps he better belongs in fiction filmmaking? Perhaps that’s where he wants to go in future: as the poster prominently tells us, this is “from the producer of Man on Wire”, a film whose director went on to helm Red Riding 1980 and IRA thriller Shadow Dancer, so there’s a pathway there.
Still, for its faults, The Imposter is a tale worth hearing — a tale so unbelievable, it can only be true.
The UK TV premiere of The Imposter is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.