Film review: The Imposter

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A HIT at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, The Imposter is a thriller-like tale about Texas teenager Nicholas Barclay, 13, who went missing in 1994.

The Imposter (15)

Director: Bart Layton

Running time: 99 minutes

Star rating: * * *

Nearly four years later, his family received a call saying a boy had been found in Spain, claiming to be Nicholas. When his older sister Carey flew out to retrieve her little brother, she found him much changed. For a start he had a strong French accent, and brown eyes, instead of blue. Yet she identified this stranger as her brother.

From the beginning of this film, we know he’s really ­Frederic Bourdin, (right) a 23-year-old French-Algerian con man with a history of impersonating adolescents, rationalising that since he didn’t have much of a childhood at the hands of his teenage mother and racist granddad, he might as well appropriate someone else’s.

Clearly Bourdin is still rather proud of the deception, as he gleefully recounts how he accumulated information about Nicholas’ background and distinguishing features, then dyed his blond hair and approximated the missing boy’s tattoo. When he vaults the first hurdle of identification with Carey, he boasts: “I washed her brain.” However, he’s still as astonished as the rest of us when Nicholas’ ­family take him in.

British director Bart Layton treats his story with all the tension, twists and turns of a pulp novel, using archive from news reports and home movies, as well as noir movie footage (when a phone rings at a police station, it’s a 50s copper who takes the call). He also employs dramatic re-enactments of unrecorded incidents, which may make you question how even-handed this account is supposed to be.

It’s certainly remarkable that Bourdin’s cock and bull story came up against so little resistance. To explain his accent and eye colour, he tells the FBI detailed stories of being kidnapped, physically altered and sexually abused by a mysterious military cult. They take it no further. Nicholas’ family aren’t even that searching; it seems the Barclays were only too eager to pin a happy ending onto their missing family member. Later, the film suggests they may have had other, darker reasons for embracing the fiction, although this accusation doesn’t seem to have been posed to any of the family members interviewed.

Instead, we spend some time hanging out with a veteran San Antonio private investigator straight out of The Rockford Files, because he was one of the first sceptics when the local news reported the Barclay ­story. He may know a lot about earlobes, but a second theory of his remains unproven.

The Imposter is a fascinating story, but it’s about as reliable as Bourdin – a veteran liar who, significantly, is allowed to dominate the picture. ­Layton may be making a sophisticated point about the elusive nature of truth but at the same time, it’s a point made at the expense of the Barclays.

• Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday