True Crime Tuesday: Sophie: A Murder in West Cork vs Murder at the Cottage
Helen Archer | On 06, Jul 2021
While it’s not particularly abnormal for different documentaries covering the same subject to be released in close proximity, the levels of duplication in Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage and John Dower’s Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, screened within days of each other in the UK, is quite remarkable.
There is a value in watching both documentaries about Sophie Toscan du Plantier, if only to compare the very different approaches and the way in which different production methods and values can skew the facts. Sheridan, the Irish director best known for My Left Foot, In America and In the Name of the Father, takes a rather sentimental approach, with much poetic talk of local legends and myths, while the seasoned documentary filmmaker Dower produces what is clearly a Netflix true crime series, with the streaming service’s near-trademark uniform style and zippy pace – although, at three episodes to Sheridan’s five, there’s less time to cover the story.
Both seem to rely quite heavily on the 2018 podcast West Cork, made by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, which tells the story of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French citizen killed outside her remote Irish home. A documentary-maker married to a famous film producer, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Sophie had bought a house near Schull, as a getaway where she could escape the pressures of public life. Just before Christmas in 1996, however, she was found beaten to death outside her property. The initial investigation was hampered by the isolated nature of Sophie’s cottage and the fact that her body was found outdoors, in near-freezing temperatures, which means not much in the way of forensics was recovered. No one has been tried in Ireland for her death.
Not only are the two programmes about the same subject, they also feature interviews with many of the same people, some of whom tell exactly the same anecdotes in each. They have similar, generic titles, although the fact that Sophie is referred to by name in Dower’s series points towards his focus on the victim. And both pull the same trick of introducing Ian Bailey – a journalist who covered the story at the time – as just another documentary interviewee in the first episodes, leading to the shock “reveal” that he quickly became the main suspect, by Episode 2.
One of the main differences is, perhaps, that one series was approved by Sophie’s family, while the other was not. Sheridan had to rely on archive interviews with Sophie’s parents – certainly the most moving aspect of his programme – while Dower had full access to the family, resulting in a more intimate portrait of the victim. Sheridan, instead, tends to centre himself. While he waxes lyrical as he stares out at the sea and sadly contemplates silent, scant video footage of Sophie, the author’s voice is silent in the Netflix production, allowing his interviewees to tell the story.
But the real distinction is the way in which each director treats Ian Bailey. He is interviewed for both series, and makes for an unnerving figure, addicted to the limelight and seemingly in his element, as he downs large glasses of wine and recites his poetry in the company of Sheridan. Dower’s film makes starkly clear the physical abuse he inflicted on his long-term partner, Jules Thomas. Sheridan, however, allows him – pretty much for three full episodes – to expose himself through his own actions, interviewing him alongside Jules and catching some of his violent temper in the process. Sheridan never pushes him for answers on, for example, his faulty alibi, and, latterly, seems to tiptoe around him. It’s all rather unedifying, and more than a little creepy, leaving the viewer feeling slightly tainted.
Neither are perfect documentaries – both obfuscate some of the more problematic areas of the investigation, and you won’t get a full picture watching either of them. Indeed, you won’t get the full picture if you watch both of them, although each effectively highlights the deficiencies of the other. Both are ultimately curiously unsatisfactory affairs, doubtless due in part to the ongoing lack of justice for Sophie Toscan du Plantier, and closure for her family.
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. Murder at the Cottage: Season 1 is available on Sky Crime. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.