Published on August 24th, 2012 | by Padraic Coffey


The Imposter (2012)

Could cinema, that most frequently maligned of art forms, ever be capable of altering the course of justice? Such a question may seem laughable, but more than once the prison sentences of convicted felons have been quashed, largely as a resulting of films documenting their cases. Errol Morris’ renowned The Thin Blue Line chronicled death-row inmate Randall Dale Adams, which led to Adams’ case being reviewed and overturned, while Joe Burlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy asserted the innocence of the West Memphis Three, teenagers who served eighteen years in prison for the murder of three children. Perhaps Bart Layton had such works in mind when he was piecing together The Imposter, a film that is guaranteed to spark heated debate among audiences over what they have sat through.

Layton’s documentary begins with the disappearance of thirteen-year old boy, Nicholas Barclay, from his home in Texas in 1994. Three years later, a person claiming to be Nicholas is discovered in a Spanish phone-booth. The boy’s family are contacted, and his sister Carey sent over to identify Nicholas, and bring him home. Despite questions over Nicholas’ appearance, his change in eye-colour and his inability to speak English without a French accent, he is issued with US documents, including a passport, and allowed passage to the United States. While Nicholas’ family seemed delighted to have him home, outside observers question whether ‘Nicholas’ is who he says he is.

Child abduction remains a perennially sensitive subject, all the more so after Madeline McCann’s disappearance in 2007, and so Layton wisely does not exploit the tragic circumstances of the actual Nicholas Barclay for a contrived cinematic plot-twist. We learn from the get go that the French-accented, hooded man is not the real Nicholas, but the eponymous imposter, who scandalously blags his way into Spain’s US Embassy, eliciting the sympathy of almost all whom he encounters. By exposing this information from the outset, Barclay sidesteps accusations of tastelessness, but maintains a gripping and unpredictable narrative. Without revealing too much, The Imposter offers more than one startling revelation before its credits roll.

As in Andrew Jarecki’s superb documentary Capturing The Friedmans, an objective eye is held by the filmmakers, who present testimonies from an array of witness, often in conflict of one another. How we, the audience, interpret these statements is down as much to our own sympathies as to any manipulation on behalf of Barclay. We may abhor the way Nicholas’ doppelganger exploits the sympathies of the missing boy’s family, but we also learn of his own neglected childhood, which accounts in some way for the extremities to which he is willing to go.

Much as it has become cliché to say so of documentaries, Barclay constructs the film like a traditional cinematic thriller. Utilising extensive dramatic reconstructions as well as the prototypical talking heads, the film is brilliantly paced, and achieves moments of suspense on a par with any fictional film of recent years. With a soundtrack that features David Bowie and Cat Stevens, and actors bearing uncanny resemblances to their real-life counterparts, there are times we could easily forget that we are witnessing a true story. And if the ambiguity of the closing leaves one slightly frustrated, it is only because the authenticity of The Imposter is incompatible with the trite resolutions of conventional thrillers.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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