IT seems strange to be writing about a new documentary about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, just a week after another landed on our screens.
But it is impossible to talk about the Netflix series, Sophie: A Murder In West Cork, without referring to Jim Sheridan’s Murder At The Cottage which landed on Sky on June 20.
There will be obvious comparisons and inevitable similarities, but the background to the documentaries is different, and the results nonetheless compelling.
Sheridan’s take is more cinematic. A powerful soundtrack emotes, his theatrical eye leads to almost breathtaking views of Fastnet Lighthouse and the surrounding wilds of West Cork. For Sheridan, a 20-year fascination with the case led him to produce his five-part series.
This three-part Netflix series is a more sedate affair.
The beauty of West Cork prevails, but there is no narration. The people involved tell their own story, talking to the camera as is the norm in most documentaries.
The most significant difference is that, while Sheridan spent time with Ian Bailey, a former suspect, getting to know the man and allowing us to see the life he leads, Netflix focuses its attention on the victim. Sophie takes centre stage, thanks to her cousin Frédéric Gazeau, associate producer on the series. This new take points out from early on that, while Sophie’s name lives on through the coverage of her death, the woman has been forgotten.
A French producer and filmmaker, Sophie was a regular visitor to Ireland. Her husband, Daniel, a film producer, was French film industry royalty and spent many evenings on red carpets and glitzy events. Sophie did not share his love of the limelight, so found a way to escape it for a time by purchasing a holiday home cottage in a remote location in the townland of Drinan, near Schull. She often went with her only son, Pierre Louis Baudry-Vignaud, and the documentary reveals previously unseen footage of the filmmaker in the cottage.
In December, 1996, she travelled to Cork without her son. She did some shopping, stopped for tea at O’Sullivan’s Bar in Crookhaven and was invited back for the annual Christmas party in the pub by owner Billy O’Sullivan. She never made it.
Two days before Christmas, Sophie was brutally murdered in a lane just outside her house.
She was dressed in her nightclothes and, to this day, there is no explanation as to why she opened her door in the middle of the night.
There were no forensics found inside the house, nor was there any evidence found on her body or at the location of her murder.
Whether in a bid to escape or placed there by the killer, Sophie was entangled in briars. Her body was covered with deep scratches from the thorns. The murder was frenzied, the perpetrator would have been splattered in blood.
Eugene Gilligan, who worked with the Garda Forensics Unit in Dublin, tells us how forensics, as we know them, were just starting to develop in 1996. It took over five hours to get from Dublin to Cork. By the time the forensics team arrived at the scene, Sophie’s body had been lying in zero-degree temperatures for hours — too long to determine her time of death.
Barry Roche, a Cork journalist, got lost on the way to the crime scene —that is how remote the house is. The theory is that only a local would know how to find the house.
Detective Superintendent Dermot Dwyer gives fascinating testimony, answering long-asked questions about mistakes that were made by gardaí at the time of the investigation.
Within hours of the murder, news spread that a French woman had died. It was the first murder in West Cork in living memory. Everyone wanted to know who the victim was, but as we hear from residents — Florence Newman, Toma McCullim, and Pete Bielecki — West Cork is home to many Europeans drawn in by the wild beauty of the land.
Back in France, Sophie’s family had a feeling of dread when the news broke of the death of a French woman in Cork.
Deep-down, her parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, and her brother Bertrand knew the murder victim was Sophie. They speak of their heartbreak, the pain of travelling to Cork to identify her, and their horror at not being able to, such were her injuries.
We hear archive radio recordings and see news footage from TV stations around the world. We see clippings of newspapers, including The Echo, and we see Bailey, the first reporter on the scene. An English journalist who moved to West Cork in the early 1990s, his knowledge of the case surprised even the gardaí.
A witness, Marie Farrell, stated that she saw a man similar in build to Bailey following Sophie in the days leading up to her death. Later, she said she saw a man, again similar in build, on the night of the murder at Kealfadda Bridge, not far from the murder scene.
Despite this, and Bailey’s use of ‘black humour’ saying he had killed her, there was no actual evidence found at the scene of the murder. Bailey could not legally be arrested for the crime, and has always denied any involvement in the murder.
Over the years, he has been arrested and questioned. He has sued newspapers, and questioned the tactics used against him. He was tried in a Parisian court in absentia and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Despite European Arrest Warrants, the Irish justice system cannot allow for his extradition.
It is hard to watch Toscan du Plantier’s family talk about this legal loophole, which they believe is preventing them from getting justice for their Sophie.
Stepping away from this Netflix documentary, I gained a better understanding of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. She was a romantic woman who thrived on the solitude and wildness of the sea; a woman who loved her son and was at her happiest when they were together.
She was someone who found peace in West Cork.
Her family say they have never been right since that fateful night. Residents of the tight-knit communities of Schull, Crookhaven, and the rest of West Cork say the murder changed their way of life forever.
Maybe these documentaries will trigger a memory or encourage someone to come forward with evidence that will finally get justice for Sophie.
Sophie: A Murder In West Cork is on Netflix from June 30.