Sophie: A Murder in West Cork (Netflix) is the second of two new documentary series revisiting the killing in 1996 of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. But because it is a Netflix production the likelihood is that this gripping three-part film will be far more widely watched than Jim Sheridan's Murder at the Cottage, which recently debuted on Sky Crime.
John Dower's documentary, which will be streamed from June 30th (the media have been given preview copies to review), has been made with the co-operation of the family of Toscan du Plantier, the French producer and film-maker brutally murdered at her holiday home near Schull two days before Christmas 25 years ago. And it isn't shy about taking a view on the case, in particular the 2019 finding by a French court that Ian Bailey, the chief suspect, was guilty of her killing. (Bailey was convicted in his absence and without legal representation and sentenced to 25 years.)
“There are a huge number of questions ... that he’s never answered satisfactorily. There are just so many contradictions between his version of it with the witnesses who’d given statements to the gardai,” Barry Roche, the Irish Times correspondent who has covered the investigation since 1996, tells Dower. “He said he never met her. You’ve all these people, at least eight other people, giving statements that contradict Ian where he says he doesn’t know her.”
As is always the objective with Netflix true-crime stories, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork makes for gripping viewing, full of twists and turns. West Co Cork is portrayed as a place of enormous cultural diversity but with a seam of mournful beauty.
Just as importantly, Dower brings the victim to life as a woman full of passion, beloved by her family and besotted by life itself. The director makes sure that this is her story and that everyone else is merely a supporting character – surely as it should be.
He also explores Ian Bailey’s life before Ireland, when he worked with the Sunday Times investigative unit and ran a news agency in Gloucestershire. He seems to have fallen to pieces after his marriage broke up.
“He was completely different,” says a friend. “Ian was left with nothing. He was someone who had slightly lost his way. I think he saw Ireland as nirvana.” So he upped sticks for west Cork, drawn by the romantic idea of living as a poet at the edge of the world.
“It’s not the work that mattered to Ian … It was the image of himself as an Irish poet, appropriating Irish culture and Irish language to serve some grandiose image of himself,” says Elizabeth Wassell, the writer, poet and former west Cork resident.
The Garda investigation is touched on, as are the contradictory testimonies of the key witness Marie Farrell. And it is suggested that, in deciding not to prosecute Bailey, the director of public prosecutions erred by prioritising the suspect’s testimony over those of witnesses such as Malachi Reid, who reported that Bailey told him he “went up there and bashed her brains out”.
Bailey has often been accused of enjoying the notoriety that has flowed from the case. He is interviewed here and confronted about his history of domestic violence against his former partner Jules.
But he is not allowed to commandeer the spotlight. (He has described Dower's film as "poisonous propaganda".) Alongside Sophie Toscan du Plantier herself, the person at the centre of the drama is her son, Pierre Louis , who is determined to see justice done.
“It’s clear he killed her. The judge said it,” he says of Bailey. “What happens next? I don’t know. If Bailey continues to slip through the net I assure you I will make sure the net comes down on Bailey.”