Enigmatic identity thief steals the show

“The camera never lies” is photography’s best-known adage. The Imposter, an enthralling documentary about identity theft, confirms the oldest wrinkle in that adage. The camera’s notional truthfulness can give credence to the impossible and unbelievable. If cinema “can’t lie”, it can lie in wait. It can ambush dodgy truths, or outright falsehoods, and give them the huckster shine of seeming authenticity.

There’s a stunning scene in this true tale of a French imposter, who passed himself off as a Texas family’s re-found teenage child, in which the family’s home movie camera records the airport welcome. There he is; there they are; they hug and kiss, just like people every day in Heathrow or JFK. Nicholas Barclay, the long-lost son who vanished three years before, had apparently turned up in Spain, spinning a yarn about kidnap, rape and assault. Nicholas’s mother and sister were first stupefied (“Spain? Isn’t that, like, across the country?”), then swallowed it. The sister flew out to collect him. That the once-blond 16-year-old, deplaning in San Antonio, now looked 23, with bleached hair above dark stubble, and spoke with a French accent ... Well, he was traumatised. Many things can happen.

Needy next-of-kin will believe anything. And photographic recordings that should destroy illusion merely strengthen it. The “boy” still had his tattoos, after all, arduously replicated by the con man from missing-child records, apparently gathered during a night’s solitary detention and wildcat international phone-calling in a Spanish police office. (The film waggishly pictures the US cops picking up their phones as a French fantasist’s TV-culled idea of stateside law: Telly Savalas’s Kojack, Dennis Weaver’s McCloud ... ). British documentarist Bart Layton lays out the unfolding, accumulating madness. In the US, it gets madder each day or week. An FBI agent interrogates “Nicholas” and even she believes him. The clinging family refuse to surrender his blood for a DNA test. A paunchy local private eye, straight out of a Coen Brothers film noir, is nearly laughed out of town when he insists, “The ears aren’t the same.”

Think of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and multiply by the power of reality. Frédéric Bourdin the imposter, a serial identity thief known at the time to Interpol, is here on screen, narrating his story in person. Nestling amid the other footage – the family members talking to camera, wordless actors replaying key moments in Edward Hopperishly lit reconstructions (catching that curdling point between American dream and nightmare) – he is a logorrheic enigma. He talks unstoppably; yet we learn nothing about his deepest motivations. That is how it should be. In this story the family feels the emotions; the family splutters the vivid, inarticulate thoughts. The agent of misadventure is merely the speaking Sphinx. He says: “I bring you bafflement in a handful of fingerprint dust.” He says: “I tease, appal and refashion you. I am art in the shape of evil. I am evil in the shape of masquerade.”

In Shadow Dancer too many talents are at work dancing with their own shadows. Director James Marsh, documentarist of the brilliant Man on Wire, is a premier danseur lost in a corps de ballet of clichés. Star Andrea Riseborough proved she could play anything in Brighton Rock and W.E., from dimwitted gangland moll to king-wedded US socialite. In this doom-by-numbers thriller about an IRA girl “turned” by the British, she merely collides with her own potential. “What are you doing here?” says the potential, dismayed. Answer: coping with the trite mechanisms of a source novel by former TV Belfast reporter Tom Bradby. The prologued childhood trauma of a brother’s death on a terrorist errand (surely nicked from Hitchcock’s Sabotage or its original, Conrad’s The Secret Agent?); the one-note-implacable Clive Owen as her UK handler; Aiden Gillen air-strumming menace as her fanatical older brother ...

Owen and Riseborough hold their “secret” trysts in Belfast on an exposed and windy waterfront where she wears, for some reason, a bright scarlet raincoat. How about a funny hat too? In reality there would be an IRA snoop behind every grassblade. In a movie, or this one, the Provos must always be two steps behind, like those screen villains who seem to have a tachometer attached to their heels to retard their pursuit of the running hero. Menace comes in short bursts only from David Wilmot’s local IRA commander, convinced enough that Riseborough’s family holds a traitor to waterboard her mentally backward middle brother. Elsewhere there’s a grisly scene of polythene sheeting being laid on a floor before an interrogation. The worlds of American Psycho and international terrorism are never far apart.

To find The Three Stooges unfunny you have to be a citizen of Curmudgeonland. Many critics are, so it was a mixed-response press show. Guffaws here, silence there, guilty giggles in between from the dual nationals (United Kingdom and United Grinchdom). I loved it. Moe with the pudding-bowl coiffure, Curley with the explosion of receding hair, and Larry the fat, hyperactively dim one were slapstick screen heroes before, during and after the second world war. They were a smaller cosmos of violence within a larger one. They slapped, biffed, pratfalled, punned and double-took; an Abbott and Costello robbed of their Ritalin rations.

For the writing-directing Farrelly Brothers, who have high-grossed on gross-out comedy (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), this fantasised biopic is almost quaint. Quaint but exuberantly crafted. Raised in a nun’s orphanage – their hairstyles intact from infancy – the trio mess up the lives of Jane Lynch’s mother superior and Larry David’s (yes) Sister Mary-Mengele before coming unstuck in the grown-up world. Never mind the details of the crime-fighting plot: murder, bamboozlement, intrigue and a firm of felicitously named lawyers (Kickham, Harder and Indagroyne). Enjoy throughout the impeccably timed sillinesses, the expertly constructed transports of knockabout – the best one involving a ladder, a bucket and Mr David – and the spot-on mimicry of Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos.

The film is a lesson, or should have been, to The Watch (released on Monday). Nothing in this comedy is expertly constructed. When in doubt about what kind of film it is making, Hollywood makes them all. In one story. In a small Ohio town Ben Stiller starts a neighbourhood watch group with Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade (the British comedian/film-maker who directed Submarine). Stuck for plot development, the tone-deaf script first goes sci-fi, with Men in Black-style ghoulish extraterrestrials, then teenage-sexy, with a lavish, precocious and inapposite orgy, then all over the place. By the end you want to mercy-shoot everyone involved.

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