CINEMA

THE STAIRCASE (2022)

Limited Series

Aired On: HBO MAX
Release Date: 05/05/22
Biography/Crime/Drama

"Tells the story of Michael Peterson, a crime novelist accused of killing his wife Kathleen after she is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home, and the 16-year judicial battle that followed."

OUR REVIEW:

True crime stories have become a hot commodity in recent years. Although the genre has been around for a while, the emergence and rising popularity of podcasts and documentaries, which seems to have made everyone with an interest in true crime an internet sleuth on some level, has given the genre new life. While there's no doubt that The Staircase docu-series by award-winning French documentary filmmaker Jean Xavier de Lestrade from 2004 was, and remains, groundbreaking. As riveting and expertly crafted as The Staircase docu-series is, much of it is owed to just how bizarre the unfortunate real-life event is. What the documentary lacks, however, is in making Kathleen Peterson an actual person. She's more so “the body”, and Michael Peterson's never-ending nightmare than she is Kathleen Peterson. One of the crowning achievements of HBO and director Antonio Campos' adaptation of The Staircase is its dedication to portraying Kathleen as a person, mother, and spouse, whether dramatized or fictional. The HBO series' crucial decision to bring her equally to the forefront of the story with the controversial Michael Peterson, introduces that missing layer to the 2004 documentary. 

 

At a respectable length of 8 episodes, amounting to 8 hours and 39 minutes‌ total, HBO’s mini-series overcomes a common hindrance that plagues other true crime series and programs. Crime scene reenactment, such as the ones you'd see on the Oxygen channel, is defined as “portraying a dramatized version of the actual crime”, and the result is predominantly corny. While The Staircase utilizes this conventional method, it uses it to its strength in its depictions of the brutal death that happened on the Peterson's staircase that night in December 2001. Going into the series, you expect to see a dramatization of the night of, because it seems unavoidable. Where Campos and co. surprise you is the creative choice to show several versions of this, which correlate with the possibilities and theories presented throughout. A good example of this is the shocking first depiction in episode 2 titled "Chiroptera". It's unsettling to behold as the show executes its representation of Michael's version of that night's events. As an accident-prone Kathleen (Toni Collette) trips up the stairs, falling, and stumbling while she tries several times to get herself up. She's bleeding profusely while trying to yell for Michael's help before losing consciousness and subsequently dying. This horrifying scene, assembled as a series of long takes and static shots, refuses to glance away from the gruesome tragedy. Emphasizing not only the proposed probability by the defense team but how horrible that death would be if Michael's version is to be the truth. 

 

If you have seen the now Netflix original documentary series property, then you probably were as confused as most people were when it was announced that Colin Firth was taking on the role of the strange and controversial Michael Peterson. The two don't look remotely similar. As jarring of a choice as it was to hear about at first, it is quickly forgotten within Firth's first few minutes in frame. The Englishman's personification of Peterson is astounding, despite still not looking much like him. They do what they can with hair and makeup, and put him in outfits that are taken from the documentary. The overall demeanor and idiosyncrasies Firth uses at his disposal are all spot on. Even the voice and accent are respectively close. This is easily Firth's best work since The King's Speech and maybe even his best yet. It's remarkable the way he turns on and off the charm and manipulation, just like the actual Michael. The rest of the cast is wonderful in their roles as well. Michael Stuhlbarg is another standout as Petersons’ attorney David Rudolf, embracing the stoicism and persistent characteristics that made him riveting to watch during the docu-series. The Peterson’s kids are well cast and in good hands with Dane DeHaan and Sophie Turner. Both actors turn in exemplary performances as the tortured black sheep of the family Clayton, and the identity-crisis-ridden, burdensome eldest sister Margaret. Of course, it would be irresponsible to ignore the knockout performance that Toni Collette gives as Kathleen Peterson. Although every actor/actress in The Staircase can hold their own without being overshadowed, Colette is consistently developing and strengthening as an actress, and she's masterful in these types of roles, yet she brings something different each time. 


HBO’s The Staircase accomplishes what exceedingly few true crime narrative adaptations have fully succeeded at before. Its hyper-focus on not only several key details and events but the small ones as well is both remarkable and commendable. Whereas other true crime series or films have opted to either loosely adapt or irresponsibly offer thin speculation, rather than fact. HBO's adaptation sticks to the facts, only injecting exaggerations or fictional moments when it's more additive than derivative. Kathleen's backstory exemplifies this as it provides her to be more of a crucial presence, as this is not just the Michael Peterson story. It should never be forgotten or minimized that one of these 2 people in the Peterson house that night was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. As intriguing as it is to ponder and theorize about the mystery of what happened. Did she fall? Did Michael kill her? Was it an owl? The bottom line is, as critical as those questions are and continue to be, they shouldn't stifle the importance of acknowledging Kathleen's story is just as relevant. Her life story is not simply dying at the bottom of a staircase, and this is the significance that The Staircase did its utmost to convey, in which it succeeded. The careful craftsmanship in the show’s writing, it's deliberate pacing, imposing performances, and the uncompromising camerawork by directors Campos and Janiak make The Staircase a textbook example of what a convincing, fact-driven, and detail-oriented, true crime adaptation resembles.

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OUR VERDICT: