Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Imposter - Review

In the summer of 1556, Arnaud du Tilh strolled into a village in Artigat, France, and loudly proclaimed to be Martin Guerre, one of the town’s citizens who’d disappeared eight years previously. Unbelievably, they believed him, and Arnaud was accepted into society for three years by the whole of Guerre’s family, including his wife. Eventually, however, someone spotted that all was not right with the town’s new resident and the French imposter was tried and executed. A remarkable story and, some might say, one that’s unique to its era. Then it happened again. In 1997 the Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin walked into a Spanish Children’s Hospice and successfully convinced the whole world, including the victim’s family, that he was Nicholas Barclay, a Texan child that had gone missing three years earlier.

Tellingly, filmmakers have been unable to leave the two stories alone. In 1982 Daniel Vigne dramatized the 16th century oddity and the result is a superb exploration of how slippery identity can be. Here, though, the differences start to mount up. Vigne had to tell a story about something that happened over 400 years ago, a documentary that included talking-head interviews and video recordings of Martin wasn’t really on the cards; it had to be dramatized so there’s only so far he could’ve taken the discussion. British director Bart Layton has no such problems with his debut feature. The year was 1997; almost everyone is still alive and willing to speak. Layton even has video footage of the family meeting the fake Nicholas – in case you’re interested, it’s awkward.

Still, bringing Nicholas’ (or is that Frédéric Bourdin’s?) story to film can have been no easy task and in lesser hands this could have been a disaster destined to populate late night TV channels. What's worrying is that more stories are as difficult as this to represent than many factual filmmakers would care to admit. Most documenters simply lack the, dare we say it, honesty that Layton shows in concluding that he simply doesn't know who to believe. That's not to say his style isn't bold and comprehensive; he presents interviews with all the major players and bravely decides to re-create key scenes, normally a technique that would be cause for concern given that this is a rumination on the nature of the truth, but the details are kept fuzzy and confused. This is not Crime Watch and Layton does well to use his re-creations to show off the air of disorientation that surrounds the case.        

Like the Guerre story, The Imposter is a lesson on the impossibility of trying to define the word ‘fact’. You see, there are always two sides to every story and everyone interviewed has a clear reason to argue their case. Unfortunately for those seeking a neat resolution, all involved rise to the occasion; from the obsessed Private Eye who first notices that Nicholas has different ears, to the distanced, on-edge mother of the real missing boy, they’re all compelling. With the help of some careful editing from Andrew Hulme, Layton offers up all the details; conclusions are to be drawn for homework.

The real star of the show, if it’s appropriate to describe him as such, is the imposter himself Frédéric Bourdin. The man’s an engaging, charismatic chameleon, who invites sympathy and, at times, gains it despite the nature of his crimes. Arnaud du Tilh would be proud and also, I suspect, a tiny bit jealous.

A gripping, thought provoking, oddly open-minded documentary that twists like an episode of CSI and yet still concludes like an academic study on the nature of the truth. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Straight on Till Morning (1972) - Review

Released way back in 1972, this litte-known Hammer came at a time when the famed studio were, shall we say, struggling to compete with the game-changing nature of America horror. It follows a young, withdrawn and weird Carrie-looking woman called Brenda when she moves south from London to Liverpool in order to try and find a "prince" to have a baby with (really). The bloke she chooses, however, might be a serial killer.

The end result is a mixed bag. Both leads do well, Rita Tushingham as the Northern fish out of water in 'Swinging London' is convincingly hopeless, if not occasionally irritating, and Shane Briant is a vacant yet chilling killer. Their relationship, which hinges on his distaste of beauty, is interesting to watch develop. Moment of choice is the horrifying end sequence - the various murders are spliced together and the sounds of the screams drown everything and everyone.

Obviously, this is a Hammer film (and a cheap one at that), so they get things wrong. The song, "Straight on Till Morning", that accompanies the film and gives it its title, features singing that wouldn't even befit a children's nativity let alone a movie from a studio well-know for producing fantastic original scores. It also features moments of sexual exploitation that had became more and more prevalent at Hamer as the money started to run out. Here the camera seems to stare at Katya Wyeth, who plays Brenda's friend Caroline, a little too often.

Ignores those grips, though, and Straight On Till Morning proves itself to be a film that, nearly 40 years on, still feels creepy enough to make one feel uncomfortable.