Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is streaming on Netflix.
When Sophie Toscan du Plantier (1957-96) was brutally murdered just outside her holiday home on the outskirts of the West Cork coastal town of Schull, all the ingredients for sensational media coverage were present and correct: a glamorous blonde female victim (moreover, the wife of producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, whose filmography includes work by Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and Truffaut), local culture shock (for neighbours and gardaí alike) and a prime suspect, journalist Ian Bailey, who continues to maintain his innocence and remains a free man despite a 2019 murder conviction in absentia. Bailey has twice brought unsuccessful libel actions, in 2003 and 2015, which merely uncovered additional information about the case in general and him specifically that had been kept under wraps.
It will be interesting to see how Jim Sheridan tackles this material in his concurrent Sky series Murder at the Cottage, but if John Dower’s three-part Netflix production doesn’t quite sidestep a charge of voyeurism (perhaps unavoidable with this subject-matter), it nonetheless opts for a balanced, sober and tactful approach, telling the story in more or less chronological sequence, via on-camera interviews with a wide cross-section of people directly involved, either as gardaí, reporters, friends, neighbours, members of the victim’s family, as well as Bailey himself. Contrary to Bailey’s claims when he fruitlessly asked Netflix to delete his interview footage, Dower is scrupulous about granting him plenty of screen time to air his side of the story.
Each episode has its own character. Part 1 focuses on Sophie herself, her life, her varied cultural, folkloric and even biological interests (she planned to make a film about bodily fluids), and her superstitions (her fascination with the Fastnet lighthouse, visible from her bedroom; a psychic foretelling her premature end; her inexplicable fearfulness when visiting a ruined castle). Part 2 brings Bailey centre stage, while the final episode is the most suspenseful, as his unsuccessful court actions are paralleled with growing pressure in France for some kind of resolution, although nothing conclusive has been achieved. French authorities carried out their own investigation and prosecution, convicting Bailey of the murder in his absence; but the Irish legal system disputed the verdict’s validity, and even if Bailey ends up in France he’s entitled to a retrial.
Dower refrains from drawing pat conclusions, repeatedly returning to the rugged, windswept West Cork landscape as if it alone harbours the secret of what really happened.