Even more of it has to do with representation. “Sophie” hews closer to the viewpoint of Toscan du Plantier’s parents, son and other relatives, interviewing them extensively and closely tracking their crusade. The main characters in “Murder at the Cottage” are Bailey and his steadfast romantic partner through most of the case, Jules Thomas. (The victim’s family members were interviewed for “Murder at the Cottage” but asked that the footage be removed after previewing the series; they appear in archival interviews.)
But perhaps the most important element is provenance. “Sophie,” directed by John Dower (“Thrilla in Manila”), is a solid example of the Netflix style of true crime. It’s pitched toward drama and surprise, without being overtly sensational; it’s polished and crisp but not noticeably inventive or inquisitive, being more concerned with packaging the story’s elements into a familiar, easily digestible form.
And its focus is on guilt — on identifying a suspect or suspects and making a case. That’s the M.O. of most true crime, to assume the role of prosecutor and to heighten the emotions of we, the jury, and guide them in a particular direction. In the case of “Sophie,” the easiest direction — and possibly the correct one — is toward Bailey’s guilt.
But guilt is not the central question in “Murder at the Cottage,” which fills the requirements of the true-crime documentary without being captive to the format. It is, in the descriptive sense, a work of art, written and directed by the gifted Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, who appears onscreen as narrator, interviewer and spirit guide. It is also clearly a passion project, one that Sheridan had been working on since at least 2015, and you wonder about its relationship to his film career, which had a brilliant early run — “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father,” “In America” — but petered out over the last decade.
In the Netflix series, information is expertly arranged to embody an existing story, one that had already been told through the media over the years, and to agree with an existing moral calculus. In “Murder at the Cottage,” Sheridan goes in search of a story that will make sense of the maddening events. His approach is actually more straightforward than that of “Sophie,” which jumps around in time to heighten surprise. He goes station to station, chronologically, sacrificing some drama for the sake of clarity.