Madeleine McCann needs no introduction. Netflix’s documentary series may troll old info, but the mystery of her disappearance still remains, writes Damon Boyd
On a summer’s night in May 2007 a girl aged three went missing in Praia da Luz, Portugal. Her disappearance would become “the most reported missing-person case in modern history”. Yet, she has never been found.
So, what exactly happened? Netflix burrows deep and as a documentary series (of exactly eight episodes ) it takes on the usual framing — in which the story unfolds linearly with images and interviews holding everything together.
Two major theories stand tall: that Madeleine McCann died accidentally, with her death covered up by the parents (a theory attested to by conspiracy theorists), and secondly, that she was taken nefariously by a stranger or strangers to be sold into sexual slavery or sold to individuals wanting to adopt illegally.
The documentary has a visual scheme that is typically imaginative, but it skirts around the darkness of a collective ‘idea’ that makes it accidentally transcend the genre and the by now well-known story. Scene for scene you know what to expect, but there is a subconscious horror seething below its conventional narrative.
This very ‘idea’ is the dormant belief that Madeleine was taken by a paedophile, raped, killed and discarded in the arid, hilly outcrops of Praia da Luz. It’s a fiery thought; it scares and sickens but this very nihilist idea is prudently avoided. Instead the documentary takes on an almost religious, some might say faithful, outlook. There is a Catholic fervour pushing the McCanns; the kind of determination you’d expect of those in purgatory, of those who’ve sinned – and this creates the irony; the emotional strangeness of the adults builds on the elusiveness of the hidden.
The unforeseen struggles and problems that surround Madeleine’s parents as the case builds brings about stoic anxiety, their faces suggest perturbed saints, rather than bereft caregivers. A lot has been said about the Mccann’s body language, about their ‘cool’, but all in all, they’re treated at arms length. However the reasoning seems sane: why would two adults kill, or accidently kill their daughter in a faraway land? There’s no control, no way in which they could get away with it. Yet… the feeling lingers: The McCanns come off as though they cannot feel, therefore what can they feel? My identification with the loss of Madeleinne became so strong that I did not feel calculated cynicism, but intense hopelessness about everything; about life. This morbid repose didn’t do anything to bring about emotional closure. It’s this kind of thinking that gets you making assumptions about a nation’s psyche: Britain was never conceived as a twee, sturdy and neighbourhoody nation. It emerged from the welter of blood and pain. It’s culture is obsessed with childhhood and innocence; with nostalgia, Christopher Robin, Beatrix Potter and Enyid Blyton. Yet it gave birth to and craddled Jimmy Saville and a slew of child rapists, the Moors Murders, Jamie Bulger and Cromwell Street.
The disappearence of Madeleine, as this documentary demonstrates, is too complex for facile thoughts.
So, it is this visceral underlying fear that actually attracts the audience: a recherché thrill of evil – of England extended. And it’s not as though the documentary isn’t unintentionally framing this idea. The way in which the sleepy coastal town in described, spoken about and pictured gives the geography a hallucinatory realism; makes it a strangely creepy, mysterious with paedophilic chaos hidden in the normal.
The island is England’s extension. Why wouldn’t a paedophile be wondering the streets of Praia da Luz? It’s the perfect spot, and as the camera disappers, the screen disappears; it is just another chapter in Britain’s love affair with the murder of children. This is a documetary that rises above its purpose. It is a tragic study of the social ills of being British, of colonialism, of betrayal, of the corruption of innocence.
I keep thinking of that coastline, the waves that rush in and the seashells that spatter the sand: and of what is must be like for a holiday goer picking up a shell and placing to their ear – only to hear the ambient echoes of a little girl’s screams.