We keep coming back to that staircase.
True crime turned to fiction is a risky proposition for Hollywood. Sometimes it makes great art. Sometimes it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. With “The Staircase,” HBO Max tries for art in adapting the story that’s also the subject of a 2004-2018 documentary series (streaming on Netflix): The tale of Michael Peterson, who claims his wife, Kathleen, fell down the stairs and died in 2001, but was charged with her murder.
With Colin Firth and Toni Collette leading an impressive cast, “Staircase” (first three episodes streaming Sunday, then weekly, ★★★ out of four) mines drama from documentary to tell a story that’s already well known – in addition to the famous docuseries, it’s also been the subject of other documentaries, podcasts and news stories. HBO Max’s version could have gone horribly wrong – exploitative, crass and ghastly – but creator Antonio Campos (“The Sinner”) makes an effort to bring something more to the story than his predecessors did.
“Staircase” is a pretty standard highbrow crime drama, one with unreliable narrators, angry lawyers and emotional breakdowns. It is less about how Kathleen Peterson died and more about what lies and half-truths can do to a family. And that family is meticulously acted by a stellar cast, particularly its younger members.
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“Staircase” lays out the case for and against Michael. Helped by his lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg), Michael (Firth) claims Kathleen (Collette) drank too much and fell down those stairs. The prosecution (including Parker Posey as a heavily made-up district attorney) claims he beat his wife to death after she found gay pornography on his computer. The evidence is confusing and inconclusive. The series shows the events following Kathleen’s death, including Michael’s long trial, interspersed with flashbacks from their life, throwing parties, going out to dinner, working, fighting.
“Staircase” tells an expansive story about the blended family: Michael, his two biological sons Clayton and Todd (Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger), Kathleen, her biological daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and adopted daughters Margaret and Martha (Sophie Turner and Odessa Young). When Kathleen dies, the family is ripped apart by their belief or disbelief in Michael’s innocence.
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Firth feels a bit too handsome and wholesome to play a potential murderer at first, but he effectively imbues Michael with sleaze. He’s fascinating to watch it only because it’s such a departure for him. But besides the award-winning older cast, which also includes Rosemarie DeWitt as Kathleen’s sister and Juliette Binoche as Michael’s new girlfriend, it’s the young actors who make the show addictive. They’re a showcase of millennial talent, and Schwarzenegger and Young, especially, prove themselves up to the task of tackling emotionally complex material.
The smartest aspect of “Staircase” is that Campos makes the original documentary a part of its plot. We see the difference between Michael on and off camera; how the documentarians’ presence affects his children; and how their bias shapes the point of view of the final product.
If a 13-episode documentary about the case never definitively answered whether Michael Peterson killed his wife, an eight-episode miniseries won’t do it, either. But what it can do is explore the nature of loyalty and family, and what children owe their parents.
And it can keep showing that same narrow, dark, ominous staircase.