Arts

Tasteful true crime series Sophie: A Murder in West Cork humanises victim

New Netflix documentary Sophie: A Murder in West Cork explores one of Ireland's most famous unsolved crimes. David Roy speaks to director John Dower and executive producer Suzanne Lavery about putting the victim's story first...

Murder victim Sophie Toscan du Plantier with her son, Pierre-Louis

AVAILABLE on Netflix from today, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is a new three-part true crime documentary series examining the murder of French television producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Paris-born Sophie (39) was violently attacked and killed on the night of December 23 1996 while staying alone at her remote holiday home at Toormore just outside Schull in Co Cork.

Although no one has ever faced trial for this brutal crime in Ireland, in France the chief suspect in the Garda investigation was convicted in 2019 of murdering the married mother-of-one following a long-running campaign by her family and their Association For The Truth About The Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier nee Bouniol.

Former journalist Ian Bailey, a freelancer who actually covered the murder when it occurred, was arrested twice during the Irish police investigation without being charged and has always protested his innocence.

He chose not to attend the 2019 proceedings in Paris, which saw a panel of French judges sentencing the Englishman and longtime west Cork resident to 25 years in prison. The Irish government has to date refused to extradite Bailey, who would be entitled to a re-trial under French law.

Sophie's murder was the subject of the hit Audible true crime podcast series West Cork in 2018, and the case was also covered by Oscar-winning Irish director Jim Sheridan in his recent five-part Sky series Murder at The Cottage, for which Ian Bailey signed an exclusive interview contract.

Bailey, who recently separated from his long-time partner and original alibi for the night of the murder, Jules Thomas, has now condemned the new Netflix series from Lightbox films.

Sophie: A Murder in West Cork was made with the full co-operation of Sophie's family, who shared their memories of her and their feelings about the case with the film-makers.

Former journalist Ian Bailey remains the prime suspect in Sophie's murder

Bailey has branded the Netflix series "poisonous propaganda" and demanded that the one interview he granted award-winning director John Dower (Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie) be removed.

Sophie's family successfully had interviews they filmed for Sheridan removed from the Sky series prior to its transmission last week on the basis that it was too sympathetic to Bailey and also because graphic images of Sophie's body were included.

However, according to Dower and the others behind the Netflix project, their documentary is intended as a tasteful, anti-sensational "corrective" to previous coverage of the murder which tended to revolve mainly around contributions from Bailey, who certainly comes across on camera as an extrovert who loves the sound of his own voice.

"One of the unique things for me about this story is that the prime suspect is a journalist who carries on reporting on the crime while knowing he's a prime suspect – and continues to insert himself into this story consistently," comments Dower.

The director spent time with Bailey in west Cork back in 2019 as well as interviewing the police involved in the case, journalists who covered the story and numerous Schull locals, who share their memories of Sophie and how her murder sent a shockwave of suspicion, horror and grief through their community almost 25 years ago.

Sophie's holiday home in Toormore near Schull in Co Cork

"We had an interview with Ian, which is in the film, who then decided to stop talking to us," Dower continues, "which again, in itself, I find sort of extraordinary if you're the prime suspect claiming that you want to get your story out there as much as possible.

"To describe our piece as 'propaganda' is a bit puzzling, because Ian had plenty of opportunities over the last few months to address some of the things that we spoke to the family about – and he chose not to do that."

"I think Ian likes his voice to be heard and he certainly courts publicity to a certain extent," comments Suzanne Lavery, executive producer of Sophie: A Murder in West Cork.

"He hasn't actually seen our series yet, so I think he's based his view on the trailer alone."

Given that Sophie's family have always believed Ian Bailey to be her murderer, you can perhaps understand his point of view – yet the prime suspect in her killing leaves just as many key questions unanswered in Sheridan's documentary as Dower's, including why he apparently confessed to the killing on two separate occasions and whether or not he actually knew Sophie: Bailey claims they were "never introduced", although there is anecdotal evidence suggesting they had been in contact prior to her death.

Sophie with her husband Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who died in 2003

Throw in the fact that a key witnesses in the original Garda murder inquiry subsequently proved to be hugely unreliable, key pieces of physical evidence – including a huge blood-stained farm gate from the crime scene – later vanished and official police records show signs of being tampered with and it's not hard to see why Sophie's murder continues to be a subject of intrigue even after almost a quarter of a century.

"We had been interested in the story for quite a while," explains Co Down-born Lavery of how the series originated.

"It really took off for us when we got access to Sophie's family and started working with her cousin Frederic Gazeau, who then became our associate producer.

"Once we all kind of aligned, we worked out that we had quite a similar vision for the series, which was making Sophie 'present' as a fully rounded character in her own story rather than the true crime trope of being a 'glamorous victim'.

"Getting access to the family archive [including home movie footage of Sophie] and their memories was also key to that."

Sophie's family worked with the film-makers behind Sophie: A Murder in West Cork

For his part, Dower admits he hadn't actually heard of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder until another film-maker brought it up.

"It was actually Louis Theroux who first told me about the case," explains the south London based documentarian.

"He told me to check out the West Cork podcast. I enjoyed it a lot, although even in the very first few conversations between me and Simon [Chinn, Oscar-winning executive producer and co-founder of Lightbox] about doing this, we did feel that the podcast was very Ian Bailey-centred.

"He kind of seduced the makers of that podcast – there was very little of Sophie and her family in it, and that struck all of us as a team as an interesting approach to take from the beginning."

Executive producer Suzanne Lavery is originally from Bangor in Co Down

Dower clarifies: "We made this film with the family's blessing, not for them. They never had any editorial control. But they are kind of a story in their own right.

"This is a family who, over the past 25 years, have not been passive in all of this. They've set up an association, they've involved themselves legally. What they've done is kind of extraordinary and sort of humbling."

John Dower on the set of Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie

Asked whether there was anything the film-makers uncovered in relation to the murder during filming but couldn't 'stand up' in journalistic terms for inclusion in the final edit, Dower is blunt:

"Yes. There's material that we can't put in there for legal reasons – quite rightly – but without sounding melodramatic, I am still waking up in the middle of the night thinking 's***'. We came very close on a couple of things.

"I came to this project with a strong idea of who I thought had done it – and I completely changed my mind when I was making the film.

He adds: "It's weird, I've been doing this for 20 years and with most films they sort of disappear and leave your consciousness after you finish them, but with this one, I just have this feeling that I'm going to be involved with it for a while longer – it's just not finished."

Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is available now via Netflix.com.

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