As young fellas given to rambling and roving, a few lads and I once found ourselves in the village of Schull, in west Cork, in Ireland. It still sticks in my mind, that village. Because even then it had a rare atmosphere. It was tiny – the area had been decimated in the Great Famine – gorgeous and overlooking a protected harbour, with the wild Atlantic in shouting distance. It was a fishing village, but more. Apart from the locals, rich and odd people lived there: French, Dutch, Belgians and Germans. They had found this remote, perfect place and retreated there, or hid there. Schull was, even then, cosmopolitan and bohemian.
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork (new on Netflix) is about Schull and a murder that has made the village notorious throughout Europe. The three-part true-crime doc-series re-examines the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a 39-year-old French woman and TV producer, who was found beaten to death outside her cottage in Schull in December of 1996. The case is unsolved and complex, filled with twists that are baffling.
Toscan du Plantier had acquired a house on “a side road off a small country road”, as a local journalist describes it. It was unusual for those who spent summers in Schull to be there just before Christmas, but nobody made anything of that. All visitors, or “blow-ins”, were tolerated, left alone. On Dec. 23 the French woman’s body was found outside, near her house. She was in her night clothes and had been beaten to death.
Now, they don’t have many murders in Ireland and had even fewer in 1996. The state pathologist was in Dublin and it was almost 28 hours before he reached the remote village and attended the scene. That made it difficult to determine what had happened. Even when the body had been found, it had been at least 12 hours since the death. From there, the story became deeply strange.
Sophie Toscan du Plantier wasn’t famous in Ireland or France, but her ex-husband was a significant figure in French film and TV. There was intense media interest. One of the first people interviewed in the series is Ian Bailey, a freelance journalist from England living near Schull with his partner, an artist. He explains that he was asked to write about the case immediately, because he was nearby. What is astonishing is that, soon, Bailey was the prime suspect in the murder.
An anonymous tip sent to the local police – anonymous because, as it later emerged, the woman who gave it was with a man who wasn’t her husband – placed Bailey near the murder scene. Police located her and she gave a full statement. Then, later, in a twist that undermined the investigation, the woman retracted and said she’d been pressured by police.
No charges have ever been brought against Bailey in Ireland. Twice, the Irish police attempted to do so, but the director of public prosecutions there concluded there was insufficient evidence to proceed. In 2019 Bailey was convicted, in absentia, in France. French authorities pressed for his extradition but in the Irish courts the extradition request was quashed. It’s all as twisted as the winding little roads of west Cork, but the Netflix series brings something new – it humanizes Sophie Toscan du Plantier and was made with the full co-operation of her family. Her life and their grief are to the fore, making the series more than an account of a lurid, unsolved murder.
Also airing and streaming this weekend
My Farmland (Saturday, CBC, 8 p.m. on CBC Doc POV) is a repeat of an award-winning doc that generated considerable discussion. Made by Diana Dai it explores two areas of Chinese investment in Canada that go largely unreported. First, in small Saskatchewan farming communities, land is being bought by Chinese-Canadian investors who have access to investment capital that locals lack. Land prices have soared. Next, in the winemaking region of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., comes the story of what happened when a wealthy individual in China made a prestige purchase of a small winery, and put his nephew’s family in charge. They knew little about wine, didn’t like the assignment and faced local resistance to the new ownership. Both stories are about a fraught transition for everyone.
Finally, note that there’s a marathon of Enlightened (Saturday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) It’s a polarizing series, but much praised. Laura Dern stars as Amy, an exec for a multinational consumer-products company. After an office meltdown she goes to a retreat in Hawaii to find inner peace. Returning to work, her new ideals and attitude cause chaos. The One and Only Dick Gregory (Sunday, Crave/Showtime 9 p.m.) is an examination of the life and career of the late Gregory, whose smooth stand-up style was the cover for activism. His biting wit influenced everyone, including Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes, who explain why he mattered so much.
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