The controversy swirling around Netflix’s Madeleine McCann documentary in the end has proved more sensational than what has reached the screen. Delays and reports of wrangling behind the scenes raised the possibility of explosive new revelations as the streaming service applied the true crime formula pioneered by Making a Murderer to the mystery of the little girl who vanished from an Algarve holiday apartment in May 2007 as her parents enjoyed a meal with friends 100 yards away.
Alas, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann simply confirms that the true crime genre has become prisoner to its crassest tendencies. The eight-part series is somehow at once overwrought and melodramatic and also crashingly turgid. Kate and Gerry McCann refused to participate and are said to have urged friends likewise to decline director Chris Smith’s advances. It’s hard not to see why.
This is exploitative filmmaking on auto-pilot – a box-ticking re-hashing of the case garlanded with a few vague intimations of sinister figures who might (or might not) have had something to do with the disappearance. At eight hours, it is furthermore far too long, with aimless detours into the historical roots of tourism in the Algarve and the spread of paedophile rings throughout Europe.
Without the McCanns, Smith (director of Netflix’s excellent recent Fyre documentary) casts about widely for focus. He draws his sights on the Portuguese police, whose paranoia is eclipsed only by their anarchic investigation techniques. Their theory that Madeleine’s parents had been drugging and accidentally overdosed their daughter is debunked. But only after Smith cynically leads us to believe the authorities are indeed justified in briefly naming Kate an official suspect.
It’s horribly manipulative. “I probably didn’t really like him. It wasn’t a warm engagement,” says Jim Gamble, former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, of his first encounter with buttoned-down Gerry. Later Gamble recalls giving the father a pep talk in which he declares that whoever knows something about the disappearance should come forward while they have a chance (nudge, nudge Gerry).
Gamble at this point is explicitly portrayed as suspecting the parents (although he has since come to believe that the McCanns had nothing to do with the disappearance). It is a suspicion we are encouraged to share.
Yet, in the next episode, the rug appears to be pulled away, though it would be a spoiler to reveal exactly how. Suffice it to say that beneath the glossy production values – endless languid shots of the Praia da Luz resort start to feel inappropriate given the subject matter – Smith has stooped to the tawdriest bait and switch. The only intention is keeping us glued.
More than 40 individuals were reportedly interviewed but, for the most part, it is the same parade of talking heads. Gamble pops up repeatedly, as do Looking For Madeleine authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. Later we are introduced to Brian Kennedy, the double-glazing millionaire swooping in as the McCanns’s benefactor. The closest to a villain is Gonçalo Amara, the Portuguese police chief who wrote a self-justifying book pinning Madeleine’s fate on the McCanns.
A bigger issue is sheer over-familiarity. Among Netflix’s international subscriber base the basic facts of the case may be fresh and gripping. To anyone who has lived with the story since 2007, the déjà-vu soon becomes exhausting.
And yet, there’s nothing else – no compelling theories, no new witnesses or evidence. The final episode dissolves into a gossipy hit-parade of weirdos, reprobates and spectres allegedly sighted in the vicinity of the McCanns’s apartment in the hours around Madeleine’s disappearance. However, there’s no substance – or even intelligent conjecture: the presumption, never stated out loud, is that child traffickers were probably responsible for the abduction. The closest to a concrete conclusion is Gamble’s belief that the truth about Madeleine will come out in his lifetime. Viewers may wish they had followed the example of the McCanns and steered clear.