With a patina of misfortune that clung to her every step, she persevered at her attempts to comprehend and plumb the essence of human existence
A documentary is not everyone’s cup of tea. There is something about the accurate depiction of reality through the medium of cinema that deprives it of the romance of the silver screen, rendering the “genre of true reality” for the most part unattractive, if not outright unpalatable. And this is revealed in no greater measure than when airing the documentary series constructed around the facts of a violent crime. The reportage is often dull and saturated, the conversations with investigating officers, family and friends stilted and self-conscious, and too often the kernel of the story, the core of the message to be communicated, is lost in the technical jargon of due process and the over-solicitous effort at capturing the pain of the moment.
The producers lose no time in introducing us to the grisly facts. It is 10am December 23, 1996, the outskirts of Schull, County of West Cork, Ireland. On a crisp morning of the most festive time of year, the battered and bloodied body of a young woman is discovered close to the main entrance of the estate where she lived for part of the year in contented exile. Sophie Toscan du Plantier, thirty-nine pushing on eternity, mother of a young son, wife of an estranged husband, was a television producer and bohemian explorer of the ultimate truth of life, a figure of Grecian misfortune destined for tragedy. Imagine, the first murder in a hundred years, and the victim should be a foreign national.
The commentary would have it that the County of West Cork is isolated even by the standards of the green remoteness of magical Ireland. And it is this isolation that attracted like a giant magnet generation after generation of outsiders and transformed a quiet corner of the island into a haven for an international expatriate crowd composed largely of artists, sculptors, writers and other elements of the creative community. These are the various constituents of the “blow ins” who are washed ashore, to enjoy and be inspired by a paradise so easily obtained. Some remain migrant birds, as was our victim, while others melt into the environment, become permanent fixtures and then “turn native”.
Ah, Sophie, Sophie, what happened? If only you could tell us. Melancholic, sad-eyed, deep, possessed of a slow yet distant smile, as delicate as porcelain. And with that patina of misfortune that clung to her every step, she persevered at her attempts to comprehend and plumb the essence of human existence.
Also read: Series review: Mare of Easttown
And who is that hulking, hunched figure in the form of an accomplished journalist by the name of Ian Bailey? Suddenly tall, looming, booming voice, articulate, and intelligent, his personality filled the room in which he stepped. But the dark gloss of hair swept raffishly across one eye and down one cheek, the low broad forehead, long eyebrows bunched in barely-controlled anger, deep-set eyes, and the sensuous mouth of a man who could acquire a taste for lethal violence. Yes, Dear Viewer, I have just sketched for you the stereotype of your friendly neighbourhood killer, forever seeking that short cut to an imagined nirvana. For the contours of the personality of this unfortunate have too often outlined and stamped the actions of those serial killers immortalized by the archives and public record. So what did he have to do with the murder of Sophie? Plenty, if the collective public opinion of a closeted society would have it. Evidence, my dear public, for what was he doing at three in the morning on Kealfadden Bridge, just hours before Sophie was discovered, sopping drunk and sopping wet, screaming to high heaven? And how do you explain the scratches on his forehead and forearms? It so transpired that there was even a bucket in the shower at his home containing a large heavy coat being soaked. Very unusual!
Follow the trial by public opinion of an individual whom it was just so easy to hate. The cocky over-confidence, the glib and superficial responses, the off-hand papering over of the vicious beating, one of many, administered to his partner Jules Thomas, one eye swollen to the size of a grapefruit, lip torn from the mouth, and a bloody scalp from which clumps of hair were torn. We were both drunk and started pushing each other around, and one thing led to another. The sheer gall of the man! I never met Sophie, I knew who she was. She was pointed out to me, but I never spoke a word to her.
Follow the investigation by the Gardai, Ireland’s finest, their apparent incompetence causing even the bloodstained gate to go missing, inhale the collective disappointment of those who would wish for nothing more than to escort Bailey to the gallows. Take heart in the strategic error made by an overconfident sociopath, follow the libel case initiated by a disgraced journalist against his fraternity, and observe the irony of the hugely circumstantial and hugely detailed case built for the most part on the testimony of the battery of Schull witnesses who were subpoenaed for the purpose. Why didn’t they just hang the scoundrel? The good folk of Schull could rage all they wanted, but the Direct of Public Prosecutions shall act only on evidence, and never on extrapolation or conjecture.
Follow the journey of the gallant association formed to keep alive their memory of Sophie and their unceasing quest for justice. Follow the indignation of a romantic nation, whose sensibilities and judicial process compelled a trial in absentia on the basis of a “bouquet of facts and happenstance”, as the French rules of evidence would so quaintly have it.
Cairns. Seagulls. Mist. Sophie was buried on the premises of her home away from home. This time, she was going to her beloved Ireland to meet a writer and devote her energies to creating poetry. Did she meet her inspiration?
Who is that decrepit, aged, rather broken individual sitting on a bench in the town square, peddling homemade condiments? Suddenly, he breaks out into poetry. Oh, it’s our anti-hero, almost unrecognizable were it not for his pathological need to communicate. Does the sword of Damocles continue to hang over this pathetic shell of a man? Can he still be extradited to stand trial in faraway France? Is he atoning for terrible sins committed, or rather is he a terrible victim of unfortunate circumstances?
I began with a note a caution, but am happy to end more optimistically. Three tight and cogent episodes on Netflix, and just one season. It’s British. And, therefore, worth the risk.
Take a chance, Dear Viewer. Who knows, you might just enjoy it.