A few years ago, a documentary called Man on Wire – about a possibly-demented French acrobat's quest to walk a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Centre – did rather well for itself, receiving much in the way of critical acclaim and many awards as well. When you have a big hit, of course, the challenge is what you do to follow it up. The director and producer of Man on Wire have gone their separate ways, but both of them have new movies out this week. This is most likely a coincidence – but what I'm absolute sure is a quirk of fate is the fact that both pictures are about people who are not, strictly speaking, what they present themselves to be.
Director James Marsh has gone to the world of narrative for his movie Shadow Dancer, which is either a thriller with elements of a drama, or a drama which utilises many of the trappings of a thriller. Largely set in Ulster in 1993, it stars Andrea Riseborough as Colette McVeigh, a Republican activist and member of the IRA. On a mission to plant a bomb in London, she is captured by the British security forces and brought before Clive Owen's down-at-heel MI5 officer, who offers her a stark choice: years in prison, or life as an informer against her comrades and family.
Riseborough chooses the latter, and must contend with the suspicions of her fellow IRA members (most notably David Wilmot's properly scary enforcer). But Owen also begins to realise he can no longer trust his colleagues – was there an ulterior motive for this recruitment, and a deeper game going on?
Shadow Dancer has good performances – Owen is always watchable, and Riseborough as customarily brilliant as ever – and the script, from a former journalist in Northern Ireland, is packed with telling detail and a real sense of a time and place. But it feels a bit uncertain as to whether it wants to be a proper character-based drama or a real thriller – in the end I'd say it's much more of the former than the latter, with a steady pace and not much in the way of real action. But the plot is satisfying, even if I found the conclusion a little too bleak and lacking in natural justice to be completely satisfying. But then this was the natural landscape of that particular moment in history, I suppose.
Producer Simon Chinn has revisited a slightly more recent piece of history for The Imposter, a documentary directed by Bart Layton. With Man on Wire, Project Nim, and Searching for Sugarman on his CV, Chinn's name has become almost a guarantee of a superior piece of work and so it proves with Layton's film.
Told as a mixture of reconstructions and talking-head interviews with the principal figures involved, this is the story – and a barely credible story it is – of the disappearance and apparent return of Nicholas Barclay, a young boy who vanished from San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. After no clue for years, in 1997 there was a startling development when news reached them that Nicholas had been found alive, in Spain.
His sister went to Spain and brought him home, but FBI officers investigating the initial kidnapping were struck by a few oddities about the case: why did Nicholas now appear many years older than his actual age? Why did he constantly speak with a French accent? And why had his eyes changed colour?
Well, this film is called The Imposter, so on one level this is not much of a mystery, just an account of what seems like a hugely overambitious attempt at identity theft by a pathological offender. It's a deeply strange and utterly engrossing story, told economically and non-judgementally by Layton. And it dares to have a real kick to its final stage, where it asks not just why the imposter attempted to impersonate Nicholas, but why his family seemed so desperately keen to believe him when he did? There is real darkness here, and no real sense of closure or resolution. Both these films are good, but The Imposter is certainly the more striking and memorable one, and it's this one I'd recommend.