The Case of the Artist and the True-Crime Documentary
If you’re the sort of television viewer — like me — who watches true-crime documentaries and spends the whole time wondering exactly how you’re being manipulated, this week brings an opportunity to peek behind the curtain.
It comes in the form of two pretty good series, one released last year and one premiering in America on Thursday, about a harrowing and seemingly endless case, the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier at her vacation home on the southern coast of Ireland.
The case has so many of the ingredients of true-crime fascination that it hardly seems real. The victim was beautiful, demi-famous (her husband, Daniel, was a leading French film producer) and far from home in a haunting, dramatic landscape. The killing, two days before Christmas, was brutal and without eyewitnesses.
A suspect, a freelance journalist named Ian Bailey who aggressively reported on the murder, was arrested twice by police and released without charge both times by prosecutors. The investigation by the Garda, Ireland’s national police force, was dogged by charges of incompetence and corruption. Bailey went to court twice, suing a group of newspapers and then the police; he lost each time, cementing his status in the public mind as a murderer who got away with it.
Meanwhile, Toscan du Plantier’s bereaved family members were waiting impatiently in France for Ireland to find her killer. Utterly convinced of Bailey’s guilt, they pushed to have him tried in absentia in France, where he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Arrested once again by the Garda, he was freed once again by the Irish state, which refused to extradite him. That’s where things stand today, a quarter century after the murder.
It’s a lot. I have it all in my head because it’s all covered, coherently and dramatically, in both the three-episode “Sophie: A Murder in West Cork,” which came to Netflix last year, and the five-episode “Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie,” premiering on the boutique streamer Topic after its broadcast last year in Britain.
But while the two tell the same story overall, they leave you with very different feelings about Ian Bailey. At the end of “Sophie,” you’re liable to see him as a strange and off-putting figure and be reasonably convinced of his guilt. At the end of “Murder at the Cottage,” you’re more likely to see his guilt as possible but not proven and to weigh his eccentric behavior against the undeniable toll the case has taken on him, guilty or not.
Some of this difference has to do, as you would expect, with selection and emphasis. Suggestions that the victim knew Bailey, which he denies, receive more of an airing in “Sophie.” A report of a speeding Ford Fiesta, driver unknown, near the victim’s house on the night of the murder appears only in “Murder at the Cottage.” There are many other examples.
Even more of it has to do with representation. “Sophie” hews closer to the viewpoint of Toscan du Plantier’s parents, son and other relatives, interviewing them extensively and closely tracking their crusade. The main characters in “Murder at the Cottage” are Bailey and his steadfast romantic partner through most of the case, Jules Thomas. (The victim’s family members were interviewed for “Murder at the Cottage” but asked that the footage be removed after previewing the series; they appear in archival interviews.)
But perhaps the most important element is provenance. “Sophie,” directed by John Dower (“Thrilla in Manila”), is a solid example of the Netflix style of true crime. It’s pitched toward drama and surprise, without being overtly sensational; it’s polished and crisp but not noticeably inventive or inquisitive, being more concerned with packaging the story’s elements into a familiar, easily digestible form.
And its focus is on guilt — on identifying a suspect or suspects and making a case. That’s the M.O. of most true crime, to assume the role of prosecutor and to heighten the emotions of we, the jury, and guide them in a particular direction. In the case of “Sophie,” the easiest direction — and possibly the correct one — is toward Bailey’s guilt.
But guilt is not the central question in “Murder at the Cottage,” which fills the requirements of the true-crime documentary without being captive to the format. It is, in the descriptive sense, a work of art, written and directed by the gifted Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, who appears onscreen as narrator, interviewer and spirit guide. It is also clearly a passion project, one that Sheridan had been working on since at least 2015, and you wonder about its relationship to his film career, which had a brilliant early run — “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father,” “In America” — but petered out over the last decade.
In the Netflix series, information is expertly arranged to embody an existing story, one that had already been told through the media over the years, and to agree with an existing moral calculus. In “Murder at the Cottage,” Sheridan goes in search of a story that will make sense of the maddening events. His approach is actually more straightforward than that of “Sophie,” which jumps around in time to heighten surprise. He goes station to station, chronologically, sacrificing some drama for the sake of clarity.
His progress is driven by his own ideas and feelings, in ways that work against easy answers or epiphanies. He can’t contain his irritation at what he sees as the shoddy and possibly unscrupulous work of the Garda, or the highhanded actions of the French court. But he is scrupulous when it comes to maintaining perspective. At a crucial moment, a journalist comes onscreen to point out that there is no reason that “the Garda is corrupt” and “Ian Bailey is guilty” can’t both be true. (This summer the Garda announced it would officially review the case.)
More problematically — certainly for Toscan du Plantier’s family — he has the storyteller’s eye for character, and the erratic, imposing, undeniably charismatic Bailey holds the screen in a way that the buttoned down, pensive family members don’t. Sheridan and Bailey clearly became close over the years of filming — during the French trial, Sheridan telephones updates to Bailey, purportedly to get his responses on film — and surely Sheridan knows that the screen time and the intimacy will generate sympathy for the accused killer. But Sheridan is just following the story to where his instincts, and the circumstances, lead him.
Along the way, viewers will enjoy the textures Sheridan brings to a genre that is generally executed by the numbers. On a pictorial level, visually and rhythmically, the series is a pleasure. And ideas emerge and blend with an unaccustomed subtlety. Early in the series, Bailey says, “It’s difficult, the gap between knowing something and being able to prove” it. Several episodes later, when the lead cop on the case talks about feeling helpless in the face of accusations of corruption, it hits you that his complaint is the same as Bailey’s.
Other choices of Sheridan’s are more immediate and vivid, such as a shot of Bailey pulling out one of his own teeth with a pliers that is paired with a discussion of the French court’s description of him as borderline psychotic. But again, it’s complicated: It could be evidence of psychosis, or it could simply be evidence of a high-pitched, theatrical personality that turns people against him.
In a rumination near the end of the series, Sheridan addresses the uncertainties of the story and of his part in it: “Is he capable of murder? Aren’t we all? Is he guilty? I don’t know. I don’t think we can say for sure.” If “Murder at the Cottage” is not, at the end of the day, something more than a particularly well made and nuanced example of the true-crime series, it’s because of another question Sheridan leaves unanswered: why he cares so much.
He hints at a personal connection and talks about his rage at the lack of justice for Toscan du Plantier, but there’s something missing, a level of emotion that would justify the effort. We may yet get the answer, as he is reportedly still following the case.