Since my novel After the Silence was published, I’ve been asked many times if the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case was an inspiration. I’ll admit, I’m fascinated by the story — how could I not be? I was a child when she was murdered near her west Cork holiday home that December night in 1996.
The following February, my family travelled to the west Cork village of Schull for the Meitheal festival, like we did every year. It was a weekend of jewellery-making and drama classes, of storytelling and music. One night, a tall, dark-haired man stood up in the pub to read his poetry aloud, and a suffocating silence followed. “That’s him,” someone whispered. “That’s the man who did it.” That was what everyone said at the time. Ian Bailey was guilty. He was the man who did it.
Imagine my surprise when I listened to the West Cork podcast in 2018, and began to understand how little I knew about a case I thought I knew everything about. Imagine too my astonishment when I finished the series and realised that I was uncertain about what to believe. I felt as if the hosts, Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, were also uncertain and they were OK with that. In fact, they embraced the ambiguity.
The same cannot be said for the two documentaries released this month. Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is John Dower’s film (streaming on Netflix from June 30), and Murder at the Cottage is Jim Sheridan’s take for Sky Crime. To me, their respective positions on the case were immediately clear. The Netflix documentary criticises the DPP’s decision not to prosecute Ian Bailey. It highlights hitch-hiker Malachi Reid’s claim that Bailey told him he “went up there and bashed her brains out” (Bailey denied making such an alleged confession but acknowledged that he repeated rumours about himself to the schoolboy). So it doesn’t surprise me that Bailey has described the documentary as “poisonous propaganda”.
Sheridan’s Sky film focuses on how the murder accusation — which Bailey has always denied — has ruined not only his life but also that of his partner, Jules Thomas. It seems more of an investigation into what they see as a miscarriage of justice by the Irish State. Again, while watching footage of Bailey serenading Thomas at her 70th birthday party, I could understand why the Toscan du Plantier family requested that all the interviews they had given for the documentary be scrubbed.
While the West Cork podcast forced the listener to interrogate their preconceived ideas, these documentaries will simply confirm whatever you already believe.
That said, for my money Netflix’s Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is the superior offering. Bailey is notoriously larger than life and a difficult voice to contain, either in film or in audio, but Dower makes a valiant effort to keep the man where he should be: as a supporting character. Sophie’s brother Bertrand Bouniol observes that while his sister is at the centre of the story, many people have forgotten who she really was. She has become a beautiful face haunting our newspapers, flattened and removed of all nuance. Sophie: A Murder in West Cork shows more than we have seen of her previously, revealing the French woman’s gothic tastes, her plans for a series of films on bodily fluids such as breast milk, semen and blood.
‘Her spirit lives on in Ireland’
We see her family: her elderly father, in tears, her son, determined to bring the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death to justice. In the process, Sophie shimmers into view, a three-dimensional human being once more rather than a mere spectre.
Both documentaries lean into the breathtaking beauty of the area — at some points, you could be watching a Bord Fáilte ad — and the mix of people who call west Cork home, from the ‘crusties’ to the artists, and the natives whose roots run so deep in this soil.
Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage is explicit about its creator’s credentials, opening with a reminder of how many Oscars nominations he has received. But to me, his vast experience in fiction may have been working against him. In the first few minutes, he remarks that Schull isn’t far from where Michael Collins was killed, talking about the “devil in the hills”. There is a flash of a headstone as Sheridan’s gravelly voiceover — his is one of the few Irish voices not subtitled, my mother wryly noticed — declares that Sophie may be buried in France but “her spirit lives on in Ireland”.
While there are faces here that we did not see in the Netflix documentary — namely Jules Thomas and Marie Farrell, the woman who withdrew her evidence placing Bailey near the scene of the crime — I preferred the less narrator-led style of Sophie: A Murder in West Cork. I don’t know if I needed to see Sheridan musing on the ethics of showing photos of the victim’s dead body. In the end, he used them and it felt gratuitous; I was relieved to see the Netflix documentary did not follow suit.
It was an interesting to watch both these documentaries within 24 hours. What struck me was how malleable the truth can be in the retelling of it. Both films have the same source material; neither brings anything new to the table.
And yet, in the choices the documentary-makers made, the elements of the case they elected to emphasise and those they ignored, it was startling to see how the same story could be told in two different ways, pointing to two different conclusions.
Sophie, a woman who believed in the power of storytelling, would probably appreciate that. The tragedy is this is her story and hers is the voice we will never hear.
Louise O’Neill’s latest book, ‘After the Silence’, was inspired by the ‘West Cork’ podcast. It is available in paperback now.
Ian O’Doherty is away