The producers of a new Netflix documentary about the unsolved murder in west Cork of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in west Cork explain why they were anxious to keep the focus on the victim
On the morning of December 23, 1996, the body of a woman was discovered in a lane at Toormore, a rocky outcrop six miles west of Schull, Co Cork. Though the victim had sustained 50 separate injuries, and was beaten almost beyond recognition, she was quickly identified as Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French film producer and writer who owned the adjacent holiday home. She was wearing pyjamas, and appeared to have fled her house in a hurry. A rock and a breeze block had been used to kill her.
By the time State Pathologist Dr John Harbison arrived on the scene some 28 hours later, establishing an accurate time of death was no longer possible, and much potentially vital forensic evidence had been lost.
Gardaí would later focus their enquiries on Ian Bailey, an English journalist living nearby. Twice arrested, he would never be tried for the crime in Ireland. A local woman, Marie Farrell, who claimed to have seen him near the scene of the crime on the night of the murder, would later recant her testimony.
Other neighbours claimed Mr Bailey confessed to them, and much circumstantial evidence was amassed by police investigators. But the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has made clear that there is no evidence linking Mr Bailey to the crime and criticised garda practices in the investigation. Almost 25 years later, the case remains unsolved.
The du Plantier case has been flickering in and out of the public consciousness for so long that many Irish people feel like expert witnesses, and hold strong opinions about exactly what happened.
The murder has eaten up many column inches, inspired a popular podcast, and numerous documentaries, including Murder at the Cottage, Jim Sheridan’s new five-part examination of the case which started on Sky Crime this week. A new three-part Netflix series, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, which airs at the end of this month, might claim be the most comprehensive yet. But do we really need it?
Well, yes, potentially, for three reasons. Firstly, Sophie collates the evidence in a new and compelling format which allows the viewer to lean towards their own conclusions. There are new testimonies, including one from Arianna Boarina, an Italian woman who at the time was living with Ian Bailey and his then-partner, Jules Thomas.
Secondly, it retrieves Toscan du Plantier from the sidelines and gives us a clear idea of who she was and why she was drawn to west Cork. And thirdly, the Netflix series was made with the full cooperation and participation of Sophie’s extended family. This contrasts with Jim Sheridan’s documentary, which the du Plantier family were initially involved with, but they subsequently asked for all interviews with them to be removed because they were unhappy with how Ian Bailey was portrayed in Murder at the Cottage.
As A Murder in West Cork’s producer Sarah Lambert, and executive producer Suzanne Lavery explain to me, making Sophie their documentary’s focus was a top priority.
“It’s a true crime trope where you have the beautiful and usually female victim whose death kicks the story off, and then you never hear anything more about them,” Ms Lavery says. “As a team, we really agonised over how to make sure we brought Sophie to the fore. Lots of people are claiming ownership of this story, but for us it really remained strongly Sophie’s story, and her family’s.”
The input of Sophie’s extended family is what distinguishes this documentary, and makes it something more rounded, and humane.
“Getting access to the family, to their archives and photographs, and hearing about all their personal memories of Sophie, that’s when it really took off for us and became such a passion piece,” says Ms Lavery.
“We were lucky in that we came to meet Frédéric Gazeau. He’s a screenwriter and a producer in his own right, and as you see in the series, he was very close to Sophie.
“He really wanted to make the Sophie-centric story, and so that’s essentially where our partnership began. Through Frédéric, we had the trust of the entire family, which was a really privileged position.”
In the course of the three-part documentary, we hear from Ms du Plantier’s parents, her aunt, uncle, cousins and friends, as well as her son Pierre Louis Baudey Vignaud, who has become such a fierce advocate of his mother’s cause. Interspersed with this are the recollections of Schull’s natives and artsy ex-pats, which help create a commanding overview. Were the locals reluctant to get involved at all?
“Myself and John Dower, the director, spent a lot of time in Schull talking to people and explaining what we were at,” Sarah Lambert tells me. “One of the first we spoke to was Dennis Quinlan, who we interviewed in the old Courtyard pub, because he was one of the people who’d seen Sophie in those last few days.
“I remember him saying that Schull people were so sick of this story being all about an alleged perpetrator, and that they would really like to see a fresh approach. He told us our approach would get people talking to us. And he was right.”
The locals’ contributions are insightful and forthright, and most seem to lean towards a common conclusion in terms of what happened.
Ian Bailey also has his say and, cleverly, the series initially introduces him as yet another ex-pat talking head, so that viewers fresh to the case are in for a bit of a land. Were they surprised that he agreed to take part?
“I think he enjoys talking, doesn’t he,” Ms Lambert says. “And he was invited to participate as fulsomely as he would choose, so the ball was in his court in terms of how much he wanted to share, because you know everyone should have a right to tell their part of the story, and he’s no different in that sense.”
Suzanne Lavery agrees. “Although Sophie is our focus, he’s obviously completely linked to this story, and his life has been defined by it in one way or another. Whether you believe he’s guilty or innocent, there’s no getting away from the fact that this has been the last 25 years of his life, so I don’t think we could ignore him as a contributor, and we absolutely needed to hear from him.”
And what of the gardaí, whose conduct of the case has so often been criticised? “I wouldn’t like to speak on behalf of the gardaí in terms of this investigation,” Ms Lambert says, “but I think Dermot Dwyer (lead detective) and Eugene Gilligan (forensic detective), who we interviewed, both feel proud of the work they did.
“I think Dermot, in particular, would say that with the benefit of hindsight, not everything was perfect. But I think they always felt that they did the best in the circumstances they had. I would also say they were dealing with probably the worst crime scene forensics you would ever have to deal with — an outdoor scene, middle of winter, blood temperature being altered by the weather, all that sort of stuff, which didn’t do them any favours.”
But still, there’s doubt. “As documentary makers, that’s what drew us to it, it’s the duality of this story. Everyone in Ireland knows this story, I remember when it first broke in the news, I was 11 or something. Now I’m a very similar age to what Sophie was when she died — it’s been part of people’s lives for such a long time.
“And you know, if he did it, why is he still free, why isn’t he serving a prison sentence? If he didn’t do it, his entire life has been defined by it and fighting against the allegations. There’s just a dreadful lack of closure for everyone.”
And so, for the moment at any rate, the case remains unresolved. In 2019, Ian Bailey was found guilty in absentia by a French court, and sentenced to 25 years in jail. But in 2020, the Irish High Court ruled that he could not be extradited on the legal terms applied. So Mr Bailey remains free, and can sometimes be seen reciting his poetry in Skibbereen. He recently said that he would be keeping a close eye on the Netflix series, which he believes might be “demonising propaganda”.
Meanwhile, Ms du Plantier’s windblown holiday home, with its haunting views out to Fastnet, has been retained by her family, and is sometimes visited by her son, Pierre Louis.
“That house is so important to him,” Ms Lavery explains, “and Pierre Louis says in the film that it’s the only place that he still goes to that is somewhere he went with his mum.
“It’s a really significant place for him, and also to be able to bring his children there, and see the place that she loved so much, it’s very poignant.”
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is released on Netflix on June 30