In the 1982 Gérard Depardieu film The Return of Martin Guerre, later remade as Sommersby (and parodied in The Simpsons episode “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badass Song”), a man returns from war, claiming to be someone he is not, and is accepted by his community, his friends, even his wife, before suspicions begin to arise that he is an imposter. It would be difficult to believe, if it wasn’t based on actual events, and the same is true of Bart Layton’s extraordinary documentary The Imposter, in which a young man turned himself into Spanish police in 1993, claiming to be Nicholas Barclay, a Texan boy missing for three years. The authorities were understandably sceptical about this swarthy, heavily-accented individual could really be the tow-headed all-American boy listed as missing, but since ‘Nicholas’ was eagerly embraced by his grieving family, how could the authorities insist he was not who he claimed to be?
To say any more about the incredible true story – which makes for such riveting drama, it’s an effort not to write ‘plot’ – would spoil the numerous surprises, as layer after layer is removed, revealing deeper mysteries and unearthing (quite literally) disturbing possibilities. After all, if the Barclay family knew the young man claiming to be Nicholas was an imposter, why did they so readily accept him? Was there an ulterior motive? Did they have something to hide?
Layton’s confidence in laying out the twisted, head-spinning narrative is extraordinary. In his hands, the tale unfolds with the technical precision of a meticulously designed join-the-dots puzzle, yet Layton brings a level of artistry to the interviews, reconstructions and ‘cutaways’ that might eclipse lesser material. One of the most effective techniques Layton employs is in having the actors in his reconstructions lip-sync to reported speech from his main interview subject, which has an eerie and sometimes chilling effect. Elsewhere, Layton juxtaposes multiple elements to create a thrilling blend of fact and fiction, a move entirely appropriate for a story where the whole truth continues to prove elusive.
Shortlisted for Oscar consideration in the Best Documentary Feature category, The Imposter is an artful and expertly crafted film, as riveting as any thriller – arguably more so, given that it’s the real deal. ★★★★