The grisly true-crime industry has finally washed up on Irish shores, fixing its attention on the unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
Jim Sheridan's Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie (Sky Crime) is the first of two documentaries about the December 1996 killing of the 39-year-old French woman. Netflix's Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, follows on June 30th.
Sheridan, the Oscar-nominated director of My Left Foot and in the Name of the Father, is a thoughtful film-maker, and Murder at the Cottage lacks the streak of ghoulishness running through much of the true-crime genre.
One surprising choice is to frame the five-part series as a personal journey on the part of Sheridan himself, who has been transfixed by the case since Toscan du Plantier's body was found at her holiday home near Schull in west Cork two days before Christmas.
Separated from the horrible circumstances of Toscan du Plantier’s death, Murder at the Cottage it is undeniably a gripping documentary. Sheridan’s voiceover has a grizzly power, and the sheer accumulation of awful details and the many twists and turns of the narrative – from the discovery of the victim’s remains to the search for a suspect – make for compelling viewing.
Whether or not it is exploitative to construct five hours of television around the trauma of a family is another question – but there is no denying Murder at the Cottage is captivating.
Jim Sheridan is in Murder at the Cottage at lot. He tramps down to the lonely shore of Three Castle Head, a mournful peninsula Toscan du Plantier visited the day before she was killed and where she was haunted by the apparition of a ghostly figure gliding across the water.
And, leafing through family photographs of the victim, he admits that sharing graphic images of the crime scene will distress her family. “Until justice is done,” he says, “you can’t fully grieve”.
Her parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, and her son, Pierre Louis, were interviewed for Murder at the Cottage. However, their contributions have been removed at their request. The family said they had understood the series would be about getting justice for Ms Toscan du Plantier and that was the clear impression they were given at an introductory meeting with the production team in May 2015.
But the family told Sky they could not subscribe to any view that the chief suspect in the case, Ian Bailey, and his former partner Jules Thomas were victims of "a vast police plot", particularly after what emerged in a number of civil and criminal trials related to the case.
Sheridan doesn't make an emphatic judgment on the guilt or innocence of Bailey, who has always maintained he had nothing to do with the death of Toscan du Plantier. He was as convicted of voluntary homicide in his absence and without legal representation following a four-day trial in France in May 2019 and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
“Without scientistic proof, with retracted statements, with absent witnesses and no interrogation of the facts … the French have proved him guilty,” says Sheridan in a voiceover after Bailey is convicted by a court in Paris. “Is he capable of murder? Aren’t we all? Is he guilty? I don’t know. I don’t think we can say for sure.”
Murder at the Cottage certainly leaves room for the viewer to conclude Bailey was the victim a garda stitch-up. In the final episode, Sheridan travels to Paris for the trial while a camera crew beds down with Bailey in west Cork.
“The whole thing is a load of b*****ks,” says Bailey. “No I’m not a pervert, no I’m not a murderer. I might be a bit eccentric. If that’s a crime, everyone should watch out.”
Sheridan does well in evoking the pyschosphere of Schull and its environs. West Cork, the hit 2018 podcast that arguably began the Toscan Du Plantier content rush, accurately conveyed the cosmopolitan character of west Cork. However, Sheridan draws a more rounded portrait of a part of the world which, on a grey day, can feel like the ends of the earth.
There are interviews with locals, including Fr Denis Cashman, who breaks down as he remembers performing last rites over the body. "I had attended a couple of murder scenes in London. But I just never saw anything as brutal and as shocking and as horrific," he says. "A concrete block at her head. It had crushed her skull."
Sheridan never loses sight of the fact that this is a story with a victim. Schull, he notes, isn't all that distant from where Michael Collins was killed at Béal na mBláth.
“But west Cork is now associated with one murder: a guest of the nation who was brought back home in a coffin,” he says. “It is a story about primal fear, about a devil in the hills, about the existence of evil among us.”
All episodes of Murder At The Cottage, The Search for Justice for Sophie available on Sky Crime and NOW. Parts one and two air on Sky Crime Sunday 9pm