It’s probably unpopular to admit disinterest in true-crime docuseries, considering their vast audience of unqualified armchair detectives. As such, this critic should confess that he only stomached one episode of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 documentary The Staircase, which arrived on Netflix in 2018.
But after viewing the first five episodes of the new HBO scripted version – penned by The Sinner writer Antonio Campos and starring Colin Firth, Toni Collette and Juliette Binoche – it's tempting to give the genre another go. Both Staircases tell the mystery of American novelist and Vietnam veteran Michael Peterson, accused in the early noughties of murdering his wife Kathleen. She was found bloodied and barely conscious at the base of a stairway in their North Carolina mansion.
Fictionalised representations tend to be more engaging than their apparently ‘real’ counterparts because they provide voyeuristic intimacy. But Campos manages to keep that closeness while retaining the ambiguity of Michael Peterson’s guilt. Firth delivers a career-best performance as the accused: a pretentious man of wealth, a failed politician, and a proven liar. But despite Michael being an unlikeable, vaguely Trumpian philanderer, could he have really achieved such violence?
The series pushes you through confluent waves of sympathy and dislike, especially through attitudes to his revealed sexuality – treated with heteronormative throat-clearing. Firth initially seems an odd choice for the role, but the amusing, pompous charm that carried him through many Brit-coms gradually suits Michael’s exterior personality.
The Peterson family, perturbed by their patriarch’s disrepute, initially appear as the ideal model of affluent American suburbia. Of course, they’re anything but. They offer such gripping dysfunctions, hierarchal rivalries, and hilarious lines that sound like titles from The Jerry Springer Show (‘you started f***ing my dad while he was still married to my mum!’). The family tree is bounteous and complicated, unbearable to decipher during the documentary but thankfully accessible here.
There’s Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Michael’s sons from his first marriage; there’s his adopted daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young); and then there’s Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage. That doesn’t include the numerous relatives and friends and even lawyers, including Michael’s defence attorney David Rudolf (a morally ambivalent Michael Stuhlbarg).
There are many names and faces and connections to juggle around, but they’re given plenty of space to breathe – constructed with informative, empathetic patience.
As well as populous characters, the series jumps a lot through time: before, after, and then 12 years after Kathleen’s death. Happily, the fastidiously beautiful editing helps to clarify. It’s some of the best cutting in TV this year, studying the upsetting tensions and fractured love between conflicting family members as well as portentously crossing between Kathleen alive and Kathleen dead.
Toni Collette stands alongside Firth as the ill-fated victim. She delivers a double-edged performance, dependent on whichever ‘truth’ about Kathleen's death is accepted – shown with shocking, bloody and uncomfortable clarity. Kathleen’s hidden doubts and dissatisfactions come in flashbacks, with muted pathos, delicately giving her a voice.
The efforts by the original documentary filmmakers are given their own captivating subplot, filled with the emotional strain of making the series. Yet with all these hours dedicated to finding those ‘truths’, The Staircase has to face its own opacity. There’s an unresolvable Twin Peaks-like quality about it, especially given the forthcoming significance of owls.
This critic won’t leave the series strenuously examining the case. But the fraught family dynamics, unforgettable complexities and potentially misguided sympathies continue to climb and descend in the mind. Especially when you realise that what killed Kathleen is as important, if not more so, than who.
The Staircase airs on Thursday 5 May at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.
|What||The Staircase, Sky Atlantic review|
05 May 22 – 05 May 23, ON SKY ATLANTIC
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