Jim Sheridan, a Irish Film Legend?

Posted by

Director Jim Sheridan on what drove him to revisit the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier for a new Sky series

Ahead of his hotly-anticipated documentary series, Jim Sheridan talks about Sophie, Ian Bailey and the personal grief that sparked his fascination with the case

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in 1996
Jim Sheridan on location filming Murder at the Cottage, his series about the death of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier. Photograph by Barbara McCarthy © Sky UK 2021

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in 1996

May 02 2021 02:30 AM


The ghosts of Jim Sheridan’s life run through his body of work. In each film, there is a little watermark of family; a signature strand of biography deftly woven into the fiction. The manly decency of his late father, Peter, was a template for Giuseppe Conlon in In The Name Of The Father. His relationship with his mother and brothers is there in the warmth and heart of his script for Into The West.

And Sheridan’s own Stateside odyssey was vividly brought to life in 2003’s In America, a script he co-wrote with his daughters, Kirsten and Naomi. So it’s perhaps no surprise that for the film-maker, Murder At The Cottage, his five-part documentary series on the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case, comes with distinctively personal motivations.

The grief of Toscan du Plantier’s family, who for 25 years have sought definitive answers, has, for Sheridan, echoes of his own family’s greatest loss: the death of his younger brother Frankie from a brain tumour, 54 years ago at age 11.

“Frankie’s death is like a roundabout that everybody keeps going back to and can’t get off. One road says life, another says death, and people don’t often take either; they just go around and around in a limbo. I go up there, to my parents’ graves, and I don’t have much emotion because they died of an age and there was justice, but with the kid you feel, my god, we will never get over it. I am obsessed with him and, to me, Sophie is connected to that because [Sophie’s family] are on that same roundabout and they can’t leave it until there is justice.”

poster

Sky release short teaser for Sophie Toscan du Plantier documentary

  

Murder At The Cottage features Sheridan himself on camera — part dramatist, part detective — travelling to west Cork and examining the well-aired facts of the case through a new prism.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in 1996

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in 1996

Sophie Toscan du Plantier (39) was the wife of a French film producer, and she had a young son from a previous relationship. In 1996, she had come from Paris to Ireland to stay at her holiday home, a remote house, near Schull, Co Cork. On the night of December 23, 1996, she was savagely beaten to death, with her body found near to the house. The Garda operation that followed was slow and flawed, and it was more than 24 hours before the state pathologist conducted his examination, the delay making the exact time of death difficult to determine.

Sophie’s prominence in France and her pre-Raphaelite beauty instantly made the case a cause célèbre. Journalists flocked to west Cork to cover the story. None seemed to have a better inside track than freelance English journalist Ian Bailey, who lived in the area. Without any Garda contacts, he seemed to have information about the case — writing, as Sheridan’s series depicts, that Sophie had not been sexually interfered with.

A local woman claimed to have seen scratches on his hands in the days after the murder and soon rumour and supposition outstrode fact. He and his then partner, Jules Thomas, were arrested but released without charge. Later it emerged Bailey had been violent toward Thomas, which, for many people, was further proof that he had committed the murder.

The DPP here found that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Bailey but he was eventually tried in absentia in France in 2019 and convicted of murder. Last October, the High Court ruled that Bailey could not be extradited and he continues to live in west Cork, where he runs a stall at the local farmers’market.

poster

Moment Joe Biden appears to shake invisible person’s hand

Video by: Getty Images

00:00

00:33

Share this video

  

“He’s a character and a half,” says Sheridan, who made hundreds of hours of footage of a defiant and garrulous Bailey.

“In the back of my head, the case was always going around because I felt he had been tried by the media. This is a guy who didn’t even sign a confession; the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six did that, even though they were innocent. He didn’t have the inflection of ‘bless me Father for I have sinned’ that most Irish people have, and he stood his ground in the face of everything.”

The inconsistencies in the case drew Sheridan’s eye. ”Maybe because she was an important person and she and her husband were friends with Jacques Chirac. It could be that the heaviness of the French investigation actually impeded the [Irish] investigation on the ground.”

Jules Thomas — who coincidentally phones Sheridan during our interview — recently ended her relationship with Bailey. That might seem strange at this juncture — after all, they have already weathered this storm of infamy together — but Sheridan claims that she stayed with him longer than she might have because to have left him would have copper-fastened the impression that Bailey really was guilty. “She was in an invidious position for many years.”

So what does Sheridan himself think happened? “Here’s the problem with, do I think he did it? — I can’t answer that because if I do, I ruin the f**kin’ doc. But you just have to look at the evidence that he did it and there is zero.”

Ian Bailey, who is fighting extradition to France. Photograph by Barbara McCarthy © Sky UK 2021

Ian Bailey, who is fighting extradition to France. Photograph by Barbara McCarthy © Sky UK 2021

In Murder At The Cottage, Sheridan refers to Bailey’s “emotional dyslexia”, but adds now “it’s not that he’s acting strange, it’s that we are being strange in watching it. The easiest thing is to get moral and say Ian Bailey did it because you have a French court decision saying he is a murderer.”

Another documentary series on the murder will come out later this year on Netflix and it was reported that the makers of that were given ‘exclusive’ access to Sophie’s family. In truth, Sheridan’s piece features extensive interviews with her son, Pierre-Louis Baudy, and parents, Marguerite and Georges Buoniol. When we speak, Sheridan says the family have not seen his series, as he wanted to make sure it was completely finished, but they will get to see it before it is broadcast.

For Sheridan, there are other aspects of the case that have been reminders of his own story. “You always feel God is unfair and, in the story, you’re looking for the divine in the face of justice to reveal itself. I think that’s what the family are doing. When my mother’s mother was giving birth to her, she died in childbirth. My mother considered herself an outsider and guilty of the death of her mother, so from inception I carried this feeling of injustice in my DNA.”

These days, Sheridan could hardly be called an outsider. He has homes in Ballsbridge and LA but he grew up just off Sheriff Street in Dublin’s north inner city. It’s a place, he says, that is “imprinted in me”. “I was probably the only person who grew up on Sheriff Street to go to college and that was because my parents were hard workers. They did three jobs just to send us to school. Amongst the kids on the street we had an expression ‘LOB, it’s the law’ — LOB was: look out boys.”

He saw a school photo recently. “I can point out kids in it that were sent to Daingean or Letterfrack [industrial schools]. These kids were taken from their homes and sent away and abused. All of these children had to go before a judge, which is incredible when you think about it. I was protected from all that because my dad was big in the Church, he did swimming and basketball and old-folks stuff. My parents were model citizens of social concern. They started a parents’ association.”

He went to UCD, where he studied English and history, and became involved in the college’s drama society. Through theatre he met another of the future legends of Irish cinema, Neil Jordan.

“Neil is not going to like me saying this but he was a little bit more posh than me. He was from Clontarf and his mother was a painter. I met him in UCD. Immediately I was drawn to him, and I got him to join our drama group. His then partner, Vivienne Shields, was in it as was my wife, Fran. We did all the O’Casey plays and Beckett.”

After graduating from UCD in 1972, Sheridan and his brother began writing and staging plays, and in the late 1970s began working with the Project Theatre. They won an all-Ireland drama competition and the prize was presented to them in Killarney by John B Keane, while a priest fulminated about the smell of “funny tobacco” emanating from backstage. “Behind the very conservative amateur theatrical world you had an atmosphere that was revolutionary. We were the first to do a gay show. The headline for it, in the Irish Independent, is still my favourite in terms of its power to draw an audience and make the public throw up. It said: ‘Worse than necrophilia’.”

And they knew the power of controversy. “We wrote a play called Journal Of A Hole, about Artane Industrial School, and a lodger who was staying with us was to stand up at the end and object — to create a bit of drama. The Herald reviewer, who was there, wrote that he didn’t buy it because no Christian Brother ever wore brown shoes.”

By this time, married to Fran and with a young family to support, Sheridan emigrated — first to Canada, but eventually settled in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York. The now fashionable area was then one of the most run-down parts of the city. He enrolled in a film production course at NYU and became the artistic director of the Irish Arts Centre.

He returned to Ireland in the late 1980s and, in 1989, as a 40-year-old late bloomer, he made his debut feature film, My Left Foot — leading a new wave of Irish films watched worldwide. It was the beginning of a fruitful period of collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis; they would go on to make In The Name Of The Father together.

“I remember seeing him on the first day of rehearsal [for My Left Foot] and he was painting with his left foot. I came back a few times during the day and each time he was still painting. I went home and tried to paint with my own left foot and I got a cramp after 10 minutes, and I knew then this guy is mad, and so brilliant.”

Of Day-Lewis he says: “I don’t think that any actor who ever lived is as good technically. It was like having Roy Keane on your team. His commitment was so spellbinding that everyone was caught up in it.”

The fact that success came late to Sheridan was a blessing in disguise, he says. “I should have made movies earlier in my career, some of my plays were very visual, but if that had happened maybe I would have OD-ed at 45.”

The American fanfare around My Left Foot may not have happened without Harvey Weinstein, who ruthlessly lobbied for the film at the Oscars. Day-Lewis ultimately won Best Actor, with Brenda Fricker winning Best Supporting Actress. Afterwards, Sheridan says, Weinstein wanted to make “every movie” with him.

When asked about Weinstein’s behaviour, he sets it in the
more general context of the domineering men who ran studios and financed films. “Everyone is beating up on Harvey Weinstein so it’s an easy bandwagon to get on. Despite all of his sins, he had a thing that was unique in the film industry. He could watch your film and come out of the room and it would be his film. He loved it to the point of possession. Neither me, nor Daniel, took any of that but he did it to all the famous American directors. God, I probably shouldn’t say this but one time he told Daniel and me that he was having a baby and Daniel put his hand up and said: ‘Stop right there and tell me, for the sake of the child, that it’s adopted’.”

Is he surprised at how things turned out for Weinstein? “I am surprised that he is sitting in a jail in upstate New York. I knew [producer] Laura Madden, who was one of the first to come out against him, but I had no idea that Harvey was pursuing her like that — a posh, Irish girl. I think we would have decked him if we had known, but that is all easy to say in retrospect.” It’s said that all revolutions begin in exaggeration, does he think that was true of the #MeToo movement? “That is exactly right. There are fellas that have killed themselves. I knew someone who put a shotgun in his mouth and fired after an accusation. He didn’t die in the end, but it’s heavy stuff.”

Jim Sheridan, centre, during filming for Murder At The Cottage. Photograph by Barbara McCarthy © Sky UK 2021

Jim Sheridan, centre, during filming for Murder At The Cottage. Photograph by Barbara McCarthy © Sky UK 2021

Now 72, with six Oscar nominations marking a glittering career, Sheridan is a pillar of the establishment, but a renegade heart still beats within. Tax breaks for artists have made them uncritical of the Government, he says. Irish theatre has become “tame” and drifted out of touch with the concerns of the people. And streaming services offer only an ersatz experience for audiences. Movies “were meant to be seen in the communal experience of the cinema”.

He’s still driven to work. At the moment he is working on a couple of film projects. One is Lockerbie — a film based on Jim Swire’s book about the events of 1988 when terrorists blew up Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including Swire’s daughter Flora.

Another is a film about the death of his brother Frankie, which is titled Sheriff Street but may be changed to North Star — after the name of the hotel where his mother, Anna, worked.

“The movie is a way of not letting him go. It’s anger at God that drives you to art. Drama possesses elements of Heaven
and Hell. All works of art that are about a dead person are like a sarcophagus where there is a mummy mummified within the structure. The fiction in a movie is like pushing the stone from the grave. This [Murder At The Cottage] is more like going into the grave.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s