Sophie: A Murder in West Cork
Directed by John Bower
Release Date: 30th June 2021
Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Release Date: 20th June 2021
Given the nature of the material, it’s perhaps inevitable that the True Crime genre contains several productions and interpretations of the same case. To get two documentaries on the same case in a matter of days does feel somewhat unique, though.
The genre itself has become more prominent amongst the sea of endless ‘content’ being released by the many streaming and television services that have come to the forefront of our viewing lives in the last few years. On top of Netflix seemingly releasing one every week or so (frequently on a Wednesday it appears), in the UK Sky has also recently launched an entire television channel devoted to the genre appropriately called Sky Crime.
It’s there that Murder at the Cottage received its premiere and its five episode run makes for simultaneously engrossing and yet frustrating viewing. On the other hand, John Dower’s A Murder in West Cork is perhaps one of Netflix’s better true crime docs of recent weeks, running for three well structured episodes, never outstaying its welcome and never falling into the realm of sensationalism like so many other recent Netflix true crime documentaries.
The pivotal piece of the case that both documentaries share and explore is that is very clear who in the minds of many is the prime suspect in regards to the murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier. In both documentaries this person is given a chance to speak, however in the case of Murder at the Cottage, the prime suspect is endlessly given a massive platform with which to not only make his case but also to become the centre of proceedings, and when he isn’t at the centre of the documentary, then it’s Jim Sheridan putting himself in the middle of it all talking about his own thoughts and feelings, sometimes shown standing amongst the atmospheric surroundings of Schull in West Cork as a sweeping drone shot captures him in classy but also somewhat pretentious fashion.
Sure, he’s the ‘host’ of proceedings, but given that he has also directed all five episodes and appears on-camera looking through newspaper clippings, case files or hanging out at the Paris court for the trial that the case builds up to, there is the frustrating feeling that the filmmaker is trying to insert themselves into the story.
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll even notice Sheridan in the background once or twice in John Dower’s documentary too when the story moves to Paris to explore court proceedings.
Admittedly, Netflix’s approach to the true crime documentary series has been equally frustrating at times too, but thankfully its three part series on Sophie’s death never falls into the traps that many true crime documentaries have fallen into recently.
When it comes to Netflix and the genre, Making a Murderer, a ten part opus that explored the murder of Teresa Halbach and the subsequent arrests of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey was so well put together that you couldn’t help but binge it, subsequently giving the streaming service a talked about new hit show as well as a new genre pool with which to ensnare audiences.
In the past year, Netflix’s producers and directors have managed to condense the ‘true crime formula’ to around four episodes, but more often than not you’re sometimes left with the feeling that so many of these series-long docs would be better in movie form, frequently coming across as a ninety or a hundred-minute documentary has been stretched out to four hours in length. This felt particularly true of The Sons of Sam and The Night Stalker, the latter of which also felt like something put together by a tabloid company such was its salacious and sensationalistic approach.
A Murder in West Cork thankfully doesn’t have that problem. Its three episodes are neatly structured and you cannot help but be drawn into the manner it opts to tell the narrative. If both documentaries have anything in common, they manage to brilliantly convey the near Twin Peaks-level of atmosphere of Schull, with its beautifully foreboding and overbearing mountains, grey Irish weather and near paranormal sense of dread, but so much of Sheridan’s approach is somewhat undermined by his constant presence and ‘look at me standing and brooding near this mountain’ drone shots.
One of the most powerful observations in A Murder in West Cork that Dower captures from one of the townsfolk is when a member of the community remarks that the constant attention given to the prime suspect in the case has meant that Sophie has been somewhat forgotten and that the case is constantly referred to by the name of the person widely believed to have killed her.
It’s perhaps a mistake that Sheridan also makes; there are prolonged sequences of the man believed to have killed Sophie at his home, talking with his partner, someone that he has been accused of beating and who doesn’t appear in the Netflix documentary but whose appears frequently in Sheridan’s, Murder at the Cottage frequently devoting portions of its screen time to some deeply uncomfortable footage of the two of them in their house talking about the case as if it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
One finds themselves not knowing if Sheridan and his production team deserve credit for capturing such raw footage or, like so much media exploration of the case, for forgetting Sophie once again, despite the title declaring itself as searching for justice for her and handing over so much of the screen time to a person that many believe is the one responsible for ending her life.
Where Sheridan’s series has to make do with archive footage of Sophie’s family being interviewed, A Murder in West Cork manages to sit down with her immediate family as much as it does with her alleged murderer, but it never for one minute allows itself to become his story in the manner that Sheridan seemingly opts to.
On top of all that, the Garda also doesn’t come out of either case looking well; Dower posits the idea that a level of incompetence was involved in the investigation, where Sheridan appears to want to turn the story into a conspiracy thriller where cover-up and subterfuge are involved at a state and police level, sometimes feeling as if it’s playing into the claims that Sophie’s alleged murderer keeps repeating.
Both series will no doubt draw a lot of reactions from the audience, and while Sky Crime’s series comes with the profile of having been produced and directed by the the director behind My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, all powerful films and superbly directed admittedly, it is perhaps Dower that captures the heartache and loss more powerfully without having to give the person most likely believed to have killed Sophie another platform with which to rail against the world.