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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


   The Imposter


Directed by Bart Layton (2012)

A 23-year-old French-Algerian mixed race man impersonates a missing 16-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan boy. The boy’s family accept him as their lost son.

You couldn’t make it up, and indeed The Imposter is a documentary, talking heads interspersed with reconstructions, about a deeply strange, disturbing and occasionally funny series of events in the late 1990s.

Nicholas Barclay was the lost boy, Frederic Bourdin the imposter who, when we first see him, is crouched in a telephone box in the teeming rain somewhere in Spain. He’s telling the police he’s found a teenager who needs help, and beginning the invention of new self, the latest in a whole series of selves he has invented, it turns out.

Very early in the film, Bourdin tells us his shockingly calculating modus operandi. He pretends he’s much younger than he is because that way he can get sympathy, trigger guilt and be taken in and looked after.

He explains that he’s never had a proper family, never been loved and that’s what he’s searching for.

Unlike the other people in this real-life drama, Bourdin’s talking head is played by an actor, Adam O’Brian, a Brit who, bizarrely, sang the National Anthem at the Olympic handover ceremony in Beijing.*

It’s best that you forget this, suspend your disbelief as high as you can, or it weakens a film whose power  relies on manipulating the permeable membrane between fact and fiction. Though to be fair, O’Brian is good enough to help you do that.

The camera watches intently as Bourdin, Nicholas’s mother Beverly Dollarhide and sister Carey Gibson tell their stories. It searches on their faces after they’ve finished speaking, as if trying to catch them out. Are they telling the truth? What are they really feeling?

The obvious question, of course, is how could Bourdin have possibly gotten away with it? The most intriguing possibility, if a little too neat, is that a complicity between the imposter and the apparent victims, two self-serving fictions, has produced its own weird truth.

Another question is why? Bourdin’s excuse for his behaviour is perhaps a result of him listening to too many social workers and psychologists. But if we reject it we’re left with no explanation at all.

And in Texas he’s happy. Going to school and striding down the corridors lined by lockers so familiar from American TV shows he feels he’s at last living the childhood he never had, the one the television promised. Or so he says. But even at 23 he’s convincing. Or O’Brian’s convincing. You see the problem.

Then there’s Nicholas’s family. Did they want to believe so much that he was still alive after being missing for three years that they didn’t notice the French accent, the swarthy complexion? Or did they have a sinister motive in playing along?

The Imposter offers no definite answers, only questions. Including the most important and worrying of all. What did happen to Nicholas Barclay?

September 5, 2012

*Tabitha Jackson (@tabula4) has rightly pointed out that while O'Brian plays Bourdin in the reconstructions, Bourdin's talking head is Bourdin himself. This is obviously important to our understanding of the film. I kind of knew that but was perhaps trying to resist an uncomfortable truth when writing this review. Or it was just a stupid error. Apologies.

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