“True crime is a very tricky genre,” says filmmaker John Dower. “You’re dealing with very sensitive areas and yet you’re turning it into a story, essentially for a piece of entertainment. We were very mindful that we wanted to do this differently.”
Dower’s Netflix docu-series Sophie: A Murder In West Cork is certainly a story that, in the wrong hands, could end up a screamingly sensationalised account of what is a shocking and bizarre unsolved real-life mystery. 25 years ago, 39-year-old French producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier was brutally murdered outside her remote Irish holiday cottage near the small town of Schull, West Cork. The killer has never been found, and the only person in the frame for her murder has repeatedly denied any involvement, however has been convicted of her homicide by a French court in absentia. He has avoided extradition and continues to live in Schull with the shadow of what he either did or didn’t do hanging over him and the locals.
It’s a case that has been closely followed by Irish and French citizens for almost three decades now, but came to a wider prominence recently as part of the podcast, West Cork, which retold the full history. It’s through this podcast that Dower - introduced to it by Louis Theroux, who Dower directed in My Scientology Movie - first encountered the events of December 1996.
“It’s an impressive podcast,” Dower says, “but it seemed quite seduced by the prime suspect. We thought possibly there was room for another retelling of the story that told more about the victim, Sophie, and her extraordinary family and what they’ve been through and done for 25 years.”
His documentary has been almost three years in the making, with the producers taking the time for Du Plantier’s family to build trust in the production, and to place her at the centre of the film. “As a writer says in our film: ‘True crime has always been like this; going right back to pulp fiction novels of yester years - the covers of those books have very attractive blonde women who are murdered. That’s their only role in the story.' Sophie was a very beautiful blonde woman, but there was so much more to her than that and we wanted to paint that true picture, including her troubled relationships, but also that she was a very loyal friend, a fantastic mother, somebody’s daughter, sister - we were keen to show she was a real individual. The family gave us their blessing to make the documentary and gave us just two stipulations: do not show any pictures of the body and please try and put Sophie back at the centre of the story, as in other stories, she seems to have disappeared.”
The sense of hurt, grief and injustice are still understandably palpable in the intimate interviews with Du Plantier’s family members - especially with her parents, her brother, her cousin (Frederic Gazeau, who was also executive producer on the film) and her son, Pierre-Louis, who was just 15 when he lost his mother. In the film, Pierre-Louis says Du Plantier’s death was “like an electric shock… I was a little boy, an only child. I was extremely close to mum. It was a sudden transformation from childhood to adulthood... A little part of us all crumbled.” Their frank and emotive accounts drive home that this isn’t just a wild story to be speculated about from the comfort of our sofas, but a horrific tragedy that sent shockwaves through a family that are felt to this very day.
The case has been troubled and led to notoriety for a number of reasons. The fact that it happened in a close-knit, remote town in West Cork meant that the local Gardai were unused to ever working on a crime at this level - there had simply never been a murder in this part of Ireland before. It took place just two days before Christmas, meaning that expert forensics and pathologists were delayed in attending the murder scene - with one source putting them at attending a whole 28 hours after the body was discovered. Then there is the highly problematic issue of the main suspect: a former journalist called Ian Bailey, who started off reporting on Du Plantier’s murder, only to be arrested for her killing later on.
As we learn from all the sharp turns of the case in the documentary, there appears to be plenty of evidence pointing at Bailey as the culprit. He was allegedly spotted on a nearby bridge on the night of Du Plantier’s murder, “howling into the night”. There are contradictions in accounting his movements. His hands were covered in scratches the day after the murder, and he can’t explain why there was a fire in his yard in which he appears to have burned his clothes. There are even witnesses who claim he has confessed to the killing. Bailey has always denied any charges - he was arrested twice by Irish police, but had all charges dropped against him due to “insufficient evidence” - however, a French court tried him in absentia, and he was convicted of voluntary homicide in May 2019. The sentence was 25 years in prison, but he managed to escape extradition, so he now lives technically as a fugitive, still in Schull.
Bailey seems happy to court publicity around the case, appearing in not just the Netflix documentary, but the West Cork podcast and another documentary about Du Plantier, Murder at the Cottage, which has also been recently released on Sky Crime. Dower says that he managed to build a relationship with him, interviewing him until Bailey announced he had signed an exclusive contract with the makers of the Sky documentary and would not be able to appear further in the Netflix film: “Bailey is what you see. He can be very charming, I found with me there were occasions where he turned to anger quite quickly. He’s certainly a huge presence, he talks a lot, sometimes I found he talked in riddles. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of his poetry.
“The people in our film, the locals of Schull, describe him quite well. I could see why he rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way - but that doesn’t make him a murderer. One of the characters in our film says ‘Ian’s been convicted on his personality’.”
One of the most damning indictments on Bailey’s character is a brutal attack he was responsible for on his partner, Jules Thomas. In the film, she’s described as having “clumps of hair pulled out and her lip hanging by a thread”. Bailey coldly dismisses this event as “it takes two to tango”. Dower explains: “I’ve seen the picture of Jules after she’s been beaten. At one point we put them in the film, but decided to take them out. They’re horrific. This is not just a drunken slap - she has huge clumps of her hair missing from her head, her jaw is dislocated, her eye is the size of a grapefruit. It’s a very tricky and sensitive area [to cover].
“There’s one line we took out as I couldn’t bear it, Ian has said it before, that they were ‘like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’. It’s romanticising horrible, gratuitous violence. He did the same things with his diaries - we took this out, again - but they were full of graphic descriptions of sex and violence and sexual violence. Again, he’s saying he’s a writer, and compared himself to a romantic poet and there’s just something very unsettling about it all.”
Bailey - who has called Dower’s documentary “inimical, poisonous propaganda”, despite never having watched it - was noted to have pushed the narrative in the stories he was writing for the national press at the time that Du Plantier had “multiple male companions” at the cottage, and wanted to divert the focus away from Ireland back to her home country of France. He appeared to be invested in the idea that Du Plantier’s murderer was actually a hit man, sent by her husband. But as Dermot Dwyer, a policeman who worked on the case, scoffs in the film - what sort of hit man would carry out a murder with a concrete block? And who other than a local person would know how to find Du Plantier’s extremely remote cottage in the first place?
Similar to Steven Avery in Making A Murderer or Adnan Syed in Serial, Bailey’s interview segments leave the viewer in an uncomfortable situation, building our own personal judgments on him, but ultimately unlikely ever to find out the real truth.
When I ask Dower his honest opinion as to whether Bailey was the killer, he says: “I think my personal opinion is not relevant. I have an opinion, but I’m not willing to share it as I think it would be too inflammatory. We stress that he has not been found guilty in Ireland and the UK.
“The most telling comment comes from Barry Roach, a brilliant, old-school journalist who has covered this since 1996, when he says there are still questions that Ian hasn’t answered properly - the bonfire, the contradictions in his movements on the day of the crime. If he’s so confident of his innocence then why doesn’t he go over to France and defend himself? He chose not to.”
The case also begs the question of who any other suspects might be. The killer never struck again (that we know of) and no one has ever confessed to the crime. Does that make the evidence more damning for Bailey? “There were no other suspects,” says Dower. “That is the question that I keep coming back to - if it wasn’t Bailey then who the hell was it? Unless someone comes forward... it’s truly baffling.”
Dower hopes that his film could led to more evidence being uncovered and for Du Plantier’s family to finally have closure and justice. But, he adds: “I have no idea what’s going to happen next, this story has taken so many twists and turns over the years.
“I still wake up in the middle of the night asking myself questions. It’s a hard one to leave.”
Sophie: A Murder In West Cork is streaming on Netflix now
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