Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
We’ve seen some triumphant true crime documentaries and podcasts in recent years. Their success usually relies on one of several factors – if a case is generally unknown, whether there’s been a possible miscarriage of justice, or if some new information or previously unheard interview comes to light. Sadly, Netflix’s eight-part series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, exhibits none of these elements, and the result is a pointless, unfocussed, and agonisingly boring exercise.
By now, there can be very few people in the world who don’t know Madeleine’s story. When the three-year-old went missing in May 2007, from a holiday resort in the Algarve’s Praia da Luz as her parents, Kate and Gerry, were eating in a tapas restaurant nearby, the publicity was instantaneous. People could relate, apparently, to this middle-class family going on a holiday and having their worst nightmare unfold. The media quickly descended on the small village, and, as more information was made available, the comments section of news websites had to be shut down due to the sheer number of theories (and abusive posts).
An enthusiastic press, with nothing concrete to report, was led to surmise about the people surrounding the case. The finger of suspicion was very quickly pointed in the direction of Robert Murat, an over-helpful Brit who managed to put himself in the centre of the search by acting as an informal translator for various media bodies. But fairly soon, as the relationship between the Portuguese police and the McCann’s broke down and the parents were named official suspects, after sniffer dogs found the scent of human blood and cadaver in their apartment, the media began to turn against the McCanns, before finally directing their ire on the police investigators themselves.
All of this is gone into in excruciating, yet strangely uninformative, detail in the documentary. Much of the first few episodes focusses on interviews with some of the players – Murat, head of Portimão police Inspector Gonçalo Amaral, members of the Portuguese and British media, and Sergey Malinka, a Russian man who was implicated in the kidnap along with Murat, whose life has been marred ever since. The McCanns themselves opposed the documentary and refused to take part, advising those close to them not to either – although, if anything, the viewer comes out of the experience feeling even more sympathy with them than they had before.
In the years since the abduction, Maddie’s fame has only grown. Helped by the McCann’s relentless publicity campaigns and informational tours, their lack of closure has been accompanied by an enduring interest. As the series goes on, there are interviews with those more removed from the initial investigation. A multi-millionaire who decided to bankroll the search is interviewed on a massive sofa, as is his son, who, clearly thinking he’s some sort of private eye, talks about sitting outside the darkened houses of local ‘weirdos’, itching to bust his way in and search for Maddie. They tell stories of taking their private jet to the Atlas Mountains to try and find a random blonde child spotted in a tourist’s photograph, while other ‘sightings’ of blonde children with ‘suspicious’ guardians are reported and scrutinised.
Various other theories are thrown into the mix, which are spurious at best and very soon found to be groundless – dead ends, just like the sniffer dog ‘evidence’ and the various police sketches of men who are all eventually accounted for and cleared. Reports of other sexual predators in the vicinity, targeting British tourist families, are mentioned, but yield no result. There is, too, a cursory look at a couple of other local cases that occurred at the time, which weren’t given nearly so much publicity (or funding), and the frustration at what can only be described as British exceptionalism is palpable.
What keeps the McCanns going is an interesting question, but as we don’t have access to them, we rely on people speaking for them – a Northern Irish detective who specialises in child abductions, the priest at Luz, who, with his wife, befriended the McCanns, a couple of people who have authored a book about the case, the private investigators and benefactors, and the shady people who managed to scam money from the search. Much time is given – with, it seems, increasing desperation on the part of the producers – to the sniffer dog handler and a police sketch artist.
Remarkably, given the length of the series, nothing new is revealed, and there is very little analysis of why the search has captured the public imagination. There could have been an interesting documentary here about how the press – with a black hole of information – ran wild, and the repercussions of the irresponsible reporting. Or why the case attracts amateur sleuths, bent on finding Maddie. Or about obsessions – how in the absence of an answer, human nature clutches at straws. Or about if and when you can ever stop looking for a lost child. But all of that is to imagine a different documentary, one with an editorial talent for getting to the human heart of the story. That documentary has not been made, and the answer to what happened to Madeleine McCann, and what it could possibly mean, remains unanswered – and possibly unanswerable.
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.