Sydney Film Festival Review: Nature and nurture square off in the fascinating Three Identical Strangers (UK, 2018)

BAFTA-nominated documentary director Tim Wardle has an enviable subject with the highly publicised reunion of long-lost-triplets Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman, who found each other at the age of 19, tracking three identical New Yorkers separated at birth by a prominent Jewish adoption agency. It’s the kind of stranger-than-fiction story that the most engrossing documentaries are made of, and it certainly helps that the account is not lacking when it comes to eccentric characters. And that’s what truly strengthens Three Identical Strangers, with Wardle faithfully sticking close to the three brothers and those around them while gradually peeling back the layers to reveal a much larger narrative, questions around the age old “Nature vs Nurture” debate, and the moral implications that come with studying such a thing. It feels like a sitcom with a conspiracy wrapped around it, a wholly unique and endlessly fascinating stab at the dark side of psychological research and the importance (especially in this modern era) of individual differences.

Three Identical Strangers is not bereft of emotion neither. It begins with the strange Twilight Zone-esque happenstance of the triplets accidentally finding each other around New York State and the resulting media circus surrounding the discovery, scenes intercut with dramatic re-enactments featuring young actors, tied together by playful editing with an obvious sense of humour and wit. And that humour is reflecting by two of the three brothers, interviewed in the present day along with their families, friends and even the editor who broke the news story. The tone here is buoyant, filled with the joy of discovery and the hilariousness of something so unbelievable coming together so quickly, helped along by the personality shared by the boys and the focus on their mirrored lives, from preferring the same brand of cigarettes to having the same taste in women. They were unsurprisingly talk show darlings, and it shows.

Though the documentary is clearly separated into chapters, nothing feels disjointed as Wardle peels layers to reveal something much darker. The impeccable pacing is a credit to Wardle’s experience, seamlessly taking us through each step in the story with the tone quietly shifting to reflect the seriousness of the situation. Most important is the slow, steady segue into the large “nature vs nurture” debate, working from the adoption agency out to a highly controlled adoption study trailing the typical lines of examining the influence of genes versus the influence of the environment, but focusing on parenting styles as well. The shock comes with just how manipulated the whole thing is, but to write anything further would be to spoil the urgency behind these twists.

There are clues in the documentary which seem meaningless at first but take on greater significance later, popping more than a few “gotcha” moments in, as if the documentary wasn’t already one of the most compelling in years. Managing to sustain this kind of pacing while still producing something poignant and touching is testament to how effective Wardle is with Three Identical Strangers. Although the expository montages of previous footage already screened, used to help elevate these twists can feel a bit unnecessary at times.

Perhaps the biggest credit to Three Identical Strangers is that Wardle never loses sight of the very human story that sits at the centre of this wider conspiracy; he realises that the juicy plot twists narratives like this often live or die on is just part and parcel to the story itself, so there’s no need to manipulate it in such a way. Instead, it gives Wardle a chance to really stick with the story and do the subjects some justice, from the joyful highs to the tragic lows.

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Three Identical Strangers is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival. For remaining sessions and more details click HERE.