The Imposter (2012)


The Imposter is a typically brilliant documentary for movie fans to stumble across at the EIFF this year and yet another example of fact being far, far stranger than fiction. It starts by, apparently, spoiling any possible surprise by telling us all about young Nicholas Barclay and his disappearance at the age of 13. Amazingly enough, he was found a few years later and reunited with his family. Even more amazingly, the man claiming to be the missing boy was nothing like the real Nicholas. The documentary tells us all of this in the opening moments and the visuals speak for themselves as the audience sees a man with dark hair, brown eyes and stubble explain how even he couldn’t believe he was accepted as a blue-eyed and blonde-haired young boy. It would seem that, as all of this information is relayed to viewers by people speaking with the benefit of hindsight, there are no surprises left but that’s untrue. The Imposter ends up being twistier and more tense than any mainstream thriller from the last decade or so.

Directed by Bart Layton, the first thing to mention about The Imposter is how far removed it is from the traditional trappings of the documentary format. There are actors used here. Highly convincing actors but actors nonetheless. Some viewers have felt hurt by this trickery and some have reacted strongly against the film, claiming that it simply uses the terrible disappearance of a child to create something far too irreverent and disrespectful. I completely disagree with this assessment and, instead, view the extra layer of artifice as something that keeps audience members on the back foot throughout and wary of the layers of information that are built up throughout the feature and then slowly but surely stripped away (through narration and/or editing).

Nothing is treated with disrespect. Nothing is, as I saw someone else claim, mocked. The information is related to the audience and explanations are provided whenever those involved can offer them. Yes, a lot of the explanation and information comes from the imposter himself but, let’s face it, he would seem to have been the only person right at the heart of this emotional and turbulent situation who was keeping a clear head and seeing everything going on around him.

There were moments in this that almost made me gasp, revisions of events that made me shake my head in disbelief and revelations that made me wonder just how those involved could have sent themselves down such paths but that’s the beauty of the thing. That’s why it’s an important film to see and discuss, it looks at just how much can be done to put an impression into the mind of someone else and also just how easy that can be when the other people WANT that impression to be real. Did the family of Nicholas Barclay have anything to hide or did they, as I suspected from the very beginning of The Imposter, simply want their son/brother/relative back so badly that they desperately clung to any scrap of hope that the wind carried to them?

Regular readers may remember how impressed I was by Calvet, a documentary about an extraordinary life, when it was show at EIFF 2011. Well, The Imposter has already placed itself as a leader of the pack in the 2012 selection.


Film Rating: ★★★★½

  1. Olly Buxton says

    interesting film – i gatecrashed a screening of this in london last week. The story is quite astounding. But i thought the craft of the documentary was its equal – although they couldn’t quite deliver the payoff the film was screaming for. I submitted a review this evening.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    Glad you liked it, Olly, I look forward to your review 🙂

  3. Chris Knipp says

    One of the best-made docs I’ve seen this year.

  4. Kevin Matthews says

    Glad you also enjoyed it, Chris 🙂

Leave A Reply