“The Staircase”—Entryway into Murder?
The Staircase (HBO Max released May 2022), loosely based on the 2004 French documentary by the same name, (see my October 2017 review of the Netflix documentary mini-series) dramatizes the death of wife Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette), and the subsequent indictment and conviction for her murder by her husband, the novelist Michael Peterson (Colin Firth). All the features of a murder mystery are here: deflection, denial, confession, and motive.
Viewers who are fans of the true-crime genre will find this “inspired by a true story” mini-series to be even more riveting than the gripping eight-part Netflix documentary. First of all, the docudrama follows the story an additional fifteen years. Second, the family dynamics is more complex. Each of the adult children’s conflicted emotions reflect their relationships to both biological and step-parents. Third, the ex-wife becomes a more central part of the evidence-gathering. Fourth, a romance with the lovely documentarian Sophie (Juliette Binoche) adds some spice as well as suspicion towards the character of Michael Peterson as a purported family man, father to five children, and devoted husband. And finally, the viewer is taken along on a journey witnessing the French documentarians filming and becoming emotionally involved with the Peterson family.
No spoiler alerts here for those not familiar with the first-degree murder trial in 2003 and subsequent tumultuous court appeals. Michael Peterson maintains his innocence throughout, even when there was an ominous shadow cast by the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a family friend, who also fatally fell down a staircase, sixteen years before Kathleen’s death.
For those familiar with both the documentary and this more recent fictionalized account of a true-crime saga, Colin Firth gives a finely nuanced portrayal of a suspected murderer. Rendering the character more empathetic and far less narcissistic than the real-life Michael Peterson he embodies, Firth is an enigma, with his characteristic understated intelligence and sensitivity. Did he or did he not murder his wife? The smile in the final scene leaves us guessing.
Note: The Staircase (both the HBO series and the older Netflix release) are quickly gaining status as a true-crime favorite. Yet Michael Peterson is far from pleased: “There are egregious fabrications and distortions of the truth in the HBO series, well beyond what may be considered ‘artistic’ license,” he is quoted as saying in Bustle (June 10, 2022).