Film review: The Imposter (2012)

Nicholas Barclay was a 13-year old boy living in a small town outside San Antonio, Texas who suddenly disappeared in June 1994. Three years later, after having pretty much given up hope of ever seeing him again, the family gets a call from Spain saying that authorities have found him. His sister goes to Spain and brings him back where he begins his life again as a high school student.

This gripping documentary film is a re-telling of a true story, mixing up archival footage, home videos, interviews with the principals as they recall those days, and re-enactments of key events with actors playing the characters. The story was apparently featured on national television in the US so some may remember it though I did not.

From the beginning we know that the person claiming to be Nicholas is a fraud, a sociopath, who has adopted the identity of Nicholas. The real mystery is how he, a black-haired, brown-eyed, 23-year old, speaking with a foreign accent, managed to persuade Nicholas’s family and community, including his mother, sister, brother-in-law that he was the blonde, blue-eyed 16 year old who had grown up in Texas. Were they fooled? Or did they, for their own reasons, want the deception to succeed? The deception extended to the Spanish legal authorities, the US consulate in Spain, and child welfare services in the US, all of whom the imposter managed to persuade that he was Nicholas.

The last 30 minutes are particularly gripping as various secrets start spilling out.

You can see the trailer here and read more about it here.

The idea of people taking on someone else’s identity is an endlessly fascinating one. Some may recall the excellent 1982 French film The Return of Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu that was based on a true story of a similar deception that took place in the 16th century, where an imposter returns to another man’s wife and village after fighting in a war. Again the question is how so many people, even someone’s wife, could be fooled by an imposter. Were they really fooled? Or were they accomplices? Surprisingly, the entire film, with English subtitles, seems to be available online. (This film was remade in 1993 as Sommersby starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster where the setting was changed to the American Civil War.)


  1. mnb0 says

    “Again the question is how so many people, even someone’s wife, could be fooled by an imposter.”
    If you want an answer you should read the book, written by Natalie Zemon Davis -- a fine example of a book that should be read after watching the movie.

    Zemon Davis was involved with the movie, but thought that some questions remained unanswered -- like yours.
    Unfortunately I haven’t read the original novel by Janet Lewis.

  2. dobby says

    Also check out Changeling (2008) based on a true story. Directed by Clint Eastwood, staring Angelina Jolie.

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