The Keepers review – a breathtakingly brave true-crime documentary

Full of twists and revelations, the new Netflix series meticulously examines the cold case of a nun killed in Baltimore in 1969 – and it’s so much more than just the new Making a Murderer

What is it? An exhaustive real-crime documentary series about the murder of a nun in 1969, but also so much more.

Why you’ll love it: The Keepers is not the new Making a Murderer. Without looking it up, tell me the name of the victim, the dead woman whose family still mourn her sudden loss, in Making a Murderer. The Keepers is a story about victims and their search for justice. It’s about giving them a chance to be heard over the loud denials of any and every official body.

It is beautifully shot, scored by a composer determined to demonstrate his command of emotive strings, and features an unsolved crime. But there the similarities ends. Director Ryan White began work on this long before the success of Making a Murderer and has dedicated himself to telling as many stories as he can, not just one.

In November 1969, a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, went missing from her Baltimore apartment. The following year she was discovered, lying on her back on a frozen hillside, far from home, her skull broken in. From that day to this, no one has been able to conclusively say what happened to her.

In this meticulous, skilfully edited series, White sets about interviewing key witnesses, police, former pupils from the school where Cesnik worked, local journalists and conspicuously few members of the church, painstakingly unearthing the complex story like a palaeontologist with a fine paintbrush. And his way in is a group of dedicated sixtysomething former pupils of Sister Cathy, who band together to find out what happened, despite the passing of years and the repeated denial of any justice. It is their story, and rightly so.

At the end of each episode, a new fact is dropped into the narrative like a boulder into a lake and the backwash forms the next episode. You would say it was a cheap trick if White hadn’t put this breathtaking work together with such care.

What begins as a cold case unfolds into a horrific tale of systematic abuse, repressed memory and institutional rank-closing from the church, police and state prosecution department. In White’s version of events, no one is directly to blame, save for the obvious villain of the piece, Father Maskell, student counsellor at Archbishop Keough school, who is alleged to have who inflicted years of sexual abuse on his young charges. Every attempt to indict him is deflected because – according to some victims – the police and even a local doctor were complicit. Was Maskell, undeniably an appalling character, connected to Cesnik’s death? Are the witnesses everything they seem? Is this story less one of a murder and more of the cover-up that followed?

I’m never fully comfortable with true crime, particularly when the victims are an afterthought to the juicy revelations. But White tells this story with a clarity another director might struggle to impose on such chaos. And all the while he is aware of the human beings at the heart of his story.

Where: Netflix.

Length: Seven 60-minute episodes available to stream now.

Stand-out episode: Of the four I have seen, episode three because it takes a truly unexpected turn.

If you liked The Keepers watch: Three Girls (BBC iPlayer), Making a Murderer (Netflix).


Julia Raeside

The GuardianTramp

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