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23 June 2021

Sky’s Murder at the Cottage is an extraordinary piece of true crime

If Jim Sheridan’s series gives us both mystery and tragedy, this is also televisual psycho-geography.

By Rachel Cooke

Jim Sheridan’s series Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie (20 June, 9pm) feels a little too long and drawn out, and it sometimes strains too hard to be poetic: not even a Dublin accent can disguise the hoariness of the script when he gets carried away (the Irish hills are always up to something, whether it’s playing host to “a devil” or “calling out” for justice). But in every other way, it’s quite extraordinary: if he gives us both mystery and tragedy, this is also televisual psycho-geography. Outsiders – the locals call them blow ins – come to West Cork hoping to put the past behind them. However, as these films reveal, once there they may find that what they hoped to bury only emerges stronger and more powerful. Isolation does tend to reduce people to their essence.

The details of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier outside her holiday cottage in West Cork on 23 December 1996, are well known; even now, a month rarely goes by without more headlines. The 39-year-old French film-maker was bludgeoned to death with a concrete block, a crime so violent that her family struggled to identify her, and for which the Gardai soon had a suspect: Ian Bailey, an English poet and freelance reporter. Bailey was twice arrested, but there was insufficient evidence for him to be charged. In 2019 he was tried in absentia by a French court, found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ireland, though, would not extradite, and there is now no outstanding legal threat against him.

Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) isn’t the only one to have been working on this case: Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, made by the Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn (Man on a Wire), lands on Netflix in mere days. But having seen the whole thing, it’s hard to believe Sheridan’s series could be bettered (its producer, incidentally, is the investigative reporter Donal MacIntyre). He always keeps Sophie du Plantier movingly and respectfully in sight, using the recollections of her parents and brother, and of her son, Pierre Louis Baudey, who was only 15 when she died, to make her more than just an old photograph to us. Her family’s astonishing elegance and dignity he then sets to brilliant effect against eldritch West Cork life, giving us all of its racketyness, its loneliness, its tatty bohemian edges, which smell of cat, stew and thwarted ambition.

The films are vividly peopled. I feel I could write an essay about each character. Before Sheridan’s camera, they unspool, an unwinding that is for some a relief, and for others a compulsion. Most mesmeric are Bailey and his partner Jules Thomas (though the Irish press recently revealed that the woman who has always stood by him, believing in his innocence, has now “had enough”, with the result that he may soon be homeless). She is a pitiful figure, and not only because she shrugs off the fact that he assaulted her (“we both drank too much”). At a party for Thomas’s 70th birthday, there is a moment when she watches from a bar as he tries, gruesomely maudlin, to sing to her. You see that she has long since closed down; a clam would be more expressive, a stone easier to read. Ostracised by friends and neighbours, embarrassment and shame can no longer touch her.

The moment when Bailey finally appears is electrifying: the bogeyman suddenly strutting before us, so proudly dishevelled in his trapper’s hat, his dirty keffiyeh, his flapping boots. I’ve no idea whether he is guilty. At this point, none of us knows the truth. But what’s certain is that women everywhere will recognise his type: too loud, too boastful, too self-pitying. Being in close proximity to him is like walking across a minefield: at any moment, you might disturb the tripwire. Even as he rails against the Gardai, the press and the courts, it’s clear not only that he’d still rather be in the limelight than ignored (even if the performance space in question is sometimes only a car-boot sale in Skibbereen), but that he’s also quite unable to feel the agony of Sophie du Plantier’s family, his own pain being always the bigger thing, the louder and the more grandiose. 

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This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us