8 October 2012

Review: The Imposter

(Dir: Bart Layton, 2012)

The Imposter has left me wondering if the perceived “worthiness” of a film blind-sides people into liking it? Ok, let me back-track a minute. About six weeks ago I saw The Imposter at the cinema and I've had a lot of time to ruminate on this. I went in only knew the most rudimentary description of what it was about (I’m not going to describe the plot here, you can easily find it elsewhere online if you must know - a clue is in the name), but I was very aware that it had been gathering rave reviews all round with many people saying it was something special and one of the films of the year. I don’t agree with them.

Circling back to my question… what do I mean by “worthiness”? It’s the perception that a film is worthy of support because it offers up something important, clever or uniquely different, which seems to be a sentiment only applied by the critics and wannabe intelligentsia. It’s a crap phrase really, but my point is that The Imposter seems to have been presented to us by the media as a film that we should be supporting and we should love. But I really don’t know why. Surely it’s not just because it’s a documentary? It certainly can't be because of the subject matter. At the time of writing it’s 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – 89 fresh reviews and 4 rotten. That's extremely high!

If people keep hearing fantastic things about a film do they feel like their opinion needs to match this, and thus convince themselves the film is that good and become as effusive about it, especially when it's not a bad film? I don’t know anyone else who’s seen The Imposter but judging by what Twitter tells me the general perception is perplexingly one of overwhelming love and positivity.

And what of the format? The decision to watch a documentary seems even more specific to people’s tastes than feature films. This may be because they lack the same sort of narrative drive and fictional element that allows people to switch off and just enjoy feature films, rooted in a perception of education and showing real life. It’s a different experience and the decision to watch must be based on a real desire to learn about the subject rather than be entertained. In some ways this explains why they rarely perform well at the box office, but perhaps also because they are so strongly associated with television these days – if you flick through the channels on an evening you’ll easily find one, except they generally fit the 45-60 minute timing slot rather than running to a feature length's ninety minutes plus. Does this mean to see a documentary in the cinema makes you and the film somehow "elite"?

I’ve digressed greatly so let’s bring things back into focus. I'm not a big documentary watcher but if something intrigues me I will watch it, and with The Imposter I honestly would've waited to rent the bluray if it hadn’t been for the fantastic reviews. It's these reviews that may be responsible for my overall opinion because the film certainly didn’t deliver on the lofty expectations they created. The subject matter is interesting and there’s a certain incredulousness to the story that initially makes it seem unbelievable, but when you think about human nature's capacity to believe it kind of makes sense. The film presents us with multiple sides to the events throughout, which works well for a story of this nature. The other plus is that it does a good job presenting re-enactments alongside the interviews, giving a sense of narrative that keeps things from becoming pure talking heads. 

However this is all seems pretty standard for a documentary these days and Man On Wire managed to carry off something like this far better. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the presentation here and it certainly doesn’t have the awe of Man On Wire, nor the emotional weight that a documentary such as Senna had, which in itself was cleverly constructed. Towards the end of The Imposter the filmmakers threaten something genuinely interesting but fail to deliver on it, undermined by the limited information available and so it all feels very… insubstantial.

The Imposter is a pretty good film, but that’s merely all it is. It’s well constructed and the subject it explores is interesting albeit nothing special, but the facts only allow it to go so far meaning it lacks anything more than providing the audience with a bit of disbelief. People seem to be confusing revealing something unbelievably outlandish with exceptional quality - the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Really this story seems like it would've made a better (and shorter) tv documentary; it didn’t deserve the big screen treatment. It is an imposter of a five star film and quite probably the most over-rated film I have seen so far this year. 

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