Netflix’s new true-crime series looks at the life and death of the brilliant, beautiful Sophie Toscan du Plantier, who was murdered while on holiday in 1996
Typical, er det ikke?? You wait years for a documentary series about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and then two come along at once. In the same month as the director Jim Sheridan’s five-part documentary over on Sky, Murder at the Cottage, comes this three-part Netflix serie, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork. Her death has already been the subject of an Audible podcast, West Cork, and many books. On the face of things, you might wonder how we have got here. Has the true crime boom really documentarised every other murder on Earth, so directors now squabble over the last few scraps of material?
It only takes a few moments of Sophie: A Murder in West Cork to realise that the opposite is true. The real surprise is that documentary makers are making films about anything else. Here’s a story that has absolutely everything, a trolley dash of documentary-friendly elements. There’s a brilliant, beautiful victim slain in her prime, a picturesque setting, a police force that lurches between charming and bungling, a vaguely sinister husband and, incredibly, a prime suspect absolutely delighted to be interviewed. Netflix has assembled a compelling film, but they have no excuse not to.
If you don’t remember the story, as I didn’t, I recommend not looking it up beforehand. I hope the twist at the end of the first episode catches you as off guard as it did me. Sophie Toscan du Plantier was a 39-year-old French TV producer who went to stay at her remote holiday cottage in Schull, West Cork for a prolonged period over the Christmas break in 1996. She left her husband, the famous French film mogul Daniel Toscan du Plantier, at home in France along with her son, Pierre-Louis, by a previous husband. On the night of 23 desember, she was bludgeoned to death with a blunt object outside her home. West Cork is a rugged, romantic and peaceful corner of Ireland where, as the film shows, the most interesting thing that normally happens is a beautiful foreigner moving in, so the murder was especially shocking. The first episode sets the scene, using interviews with locals and Sophie’s family. There’s a garrulous publican, a poet, a Garda detective with a sing-song accent and an English investigative journalist, Ian Bailey, who moved there to write poetry and generally live the Irish good life. From a filmmaking point of view, you couldn’t hope for two more expressive and soulful nations than the French and the Irish. The interviewees offer little in the way of clipped stoicism, and lot of Gothic lyricism. Sophie had a macabre streak, we learn, and was visited by premonitions of her death.
In time, suspicion falls on the mysterious outsider, Ian Bailey. As a freelance journalist, Bailey writes news stories immediately after her death in which he knows a surprising amount of detail. Other interviewees claim he is “desperate for notoriety” and “loves” being interviewed. He directed attention towards Sophie’s love life, and suggested there was trouble at home. He told locals he thought she could have been killed by an assassin sent over from France. In the months after the murder, he told several locals he had killed her, yet later said this was just black humour.
Bailey was arrested twice but never tried in Ireland due to a lack of evidence. In France, i mellomtiden, he was tried in absentia, found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in jail. I 2020, the Irish High Court ruled he could not be extradited. For now, he still lives freely in West Cork. This week it was reported that Bailey is suing Netflix for using an interview he gave in 2018 as part of another film. He claims he was contractually obliged to Sheridan’s production. He has said the Netflix film is a piece of “biased, inimical, poisonous propaganda” based on the same “false narrative” that convicted him in France.
Television has reached a curious moment where star interviewees and sometime murder suspects are being signed up for exclusive deals, like footballers. While crime remains such big business for entertainment, legal wrangling is probably inevitable, but it’s ghoulish all the same. No number of documentaries will change the fact that 25 years after her death, Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s killer is still at large. They might be enjoying all the attention.