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‘The Staircase’ Review: Colin Firth Slays in HBO Max’s Sly Study of Why We Assign Guilt and Innocence

Antonio Campos' adaptation of the seminal true-crime docuseries craftily balances fact and fiction by conceding the oft-unknowable gap in-between.

“The Staircase”

Courtesy of HBO Max

In the scripted version of “The Staircase,” Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) slips on a step, falls down, and dies. The blood pouring from the top of her head is soon spread over the walls as she struggles to sit up, creating a convincing scene to the one soon discovered, photographed, and endlessly analyzed by the police. Like her distraught husband Michael (Colin Firth) claims from the start, Kathleen’s death was an accident.

And yet, Kathleen Peterson is murdered. A heated argument turns physical. The hallway again transforms into its inevitable, nightmarish state. Michael is both angry and apologetic, but he’s unquestionably at fault. Like the district attorney and his team claim from the start, Kathleen’s death was a homicide.

With only five of the limited series’ eight episodes screened for critics, there very well may be a third or fourth reenactment of a murder that’s been debated for nearly two decades. And that’s just fine. Much like the docuseries that inspired Campos — who’s been so obsessed with Michael Peterson’s case that he attended certain court proceedings  — 2022’s “The Staircase” is built as a disruptor. Where Jean-Xavier de Lastrade’s intimate unscripted series provided incredible access to a long, troubled legal process — and encouraged reconsideration of Michael’s guilt — the scripted edition creates scenes, conversations, and perspectives to portray an even more personal vision of the entire Peterson family. Authenticity takes precedent over fact-finding, which fits not only this fictionalized production but the series’ central argument, as well: Some truths are inextricably tied to who tells the better story.

While still rooted in research (certain lines and plenty of moments from the documentary are repeated), Campos and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn introduce Lastrade (played by Vincent Vermignon) and his producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) as characters, using their work to confront the subjectivity of art and how it compares to the alleged objectivity in a court of law. “The Staircase” indulges the now-standard question driving most true-crime stories — guilty or not guilty — and but also asks if, some of the time, we can know either conclusion with enough certainty. As is inevitable with two shows covering much of the same ground, many of the points overlap, and those who’ve seen the docuseries may not need to watch the HBO Max adaptation (or may grow frustrated with another iteration of the Peterson saga lacking definitive proof). But the slick structure, winking commentary on true-crime culture, and a killer performance from Colin Firth, among others, make “The Staircase” a gripping and nimble successor.

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in “The Staircase”

Courtesy of HBO Max

It’s also a broader examination told through three distinct timelines. One follows an older, skittish Michael in 2017, as he prepares for a fateful day in court. The main arc starts on December 9, 2001, when Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns from a party to find cop cars surrounding his father’s house, Michael sobbing inside, and his step-mom dead at the base of the stairs. Finally, the last timeline tracks Kathleen in the months leading up to her final night alive.

The chronological examination of the case, as it unfolds, sucks viewers into the mystery all over again. First, Michael and his family have to come to terms with a murder charge few of them expected. Then, as the investigation gets under way, secrets about dear old dad start to spill out. The tight-knit Peterson clan — made up of two adopted children, two from Michael’s first marriage, and one from Kathleen’s first marriage — slowly erode, as conflicting accounts and inconclusive evidence split the kids into believers and non-believers. But Campos, who directs six episodes and writes or co-writes five, is clever about using the separate timelines to better inform why some aspects of the case stick with select family members more than others, resulting in nuanced depictions of Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young), especially.

Kathleen’s pre-death timeline works to do the same, fleshing out a woman who’s predominantly known for what happens to her husband after she’s gone. Collette, as usual, is dialed in; she instills Kathleen with a generous spirit, both in her amiable demeanor and constant support of her family. She’s the breadwinner and the caretaker, the good cop and the bad cop — she does it all. But so far, she still lacks distinction. This Kathleen is more of an everywoman than a partner explored as equally as her complicated husband. More could be coming in the final three hours, but her distressing death scenes again prove more memorable than her light character development.

Colin Firth in “The Staircase”

Courtesy of HBO Max

Firth is given far more to chew on — which makes sense, given he’s alive in all three timelines, rather than only one — and he tears through the role with a magnetic mix of tenderness, arrogance, and constraint. Given everything heaped on the character, it’s remarkable how grounded Firth keeps Michael. This is a guy who mutters to himself when he’s stressed, writes novels, runs for public office (twice), and has to explain lies he’s been caught in while remaining convincingly honest. Multiple people use his name as a verb when he tries to talk his way out of a problem (“Don’t you Michael Peterson me!”), but some of those same skeptics remain loyal to him.

Other actors may be tempted to play up the extremes, creating different Michaels for different people, situations, and phases of his life. One Michael is the guilty Michael, and the other is not guilty. But Firth is consistent on every beat, whether it’s a fleeting look in a key moment or a massive scene, like the four-and-a-half-minute oner that tracks a stammering, shaking Michael in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death. Every Michael is the same Michael, which helps make either version of Kathleen’s death a believable outcome. Firth also isn’t doing an impression of the man seen in Lastrade’s doc; it’s an embodiment of the history that shaped him combined with the circumstances depicted in the series. Firth finds an American accent that works for him and builds Michael from the script, not the news cycle. He’s not trying to remind you of what you’ve already seen, but hold focus on the person in front of you now.

Pairing nicely with his powerful central performance is a sly sense of humor. Parker Posey, as is her right in every project, elevates off-hand jokes to scene-stealing extremes and sports enough makeup to make Tammy Faye jealous. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Kathleen’s sister with maniacal vigor, attacking Michael at surprising times that always pay off. Dane DeHaan, as the black sheep son Clayton, sparks to life in a later episode by bombing trial prep so hard a fight breaks out. In a true story with this many twists and turns, there has to be room to acknowledge how weird things get, even if leaning too far into the insanity could upset the established tone’s naturalism. Campos trusts his cast to find the right notes, while coordinating the timelines so the black comic bits never overwhelm the story’s urgent drama.

Together, these human elements work to reinforce the series’ examination of subjectivity. Courts are built to find objective truths, but courts are also built by humans, who are subjective, and rely on human subjectivity to function. As one character argues, “A trial is simply two sides competing to tell a better story.” The jurors pick their favorite, and their verdict “becomes justice.” Lastrade’s documentary tackled similar ideas, but the HBO Max series takes them further, pushes back on modern genre conventions, and incorporates the impact the original doc had on “justice” for Michael. The defense tells a story, the prosecution tells a story, and the audience — this time, a director wielding a camera — tells their story, too. In matters as grave as this, where the magnitude is emphasized by seeing both tragic versions of Kathleen’s death, no one wants to be wrong. They need to believe in a single truth, whether it’s because their job demands it or because believing in justice serves as a societal comfort blanket. Rather than warm us with answers, as so many modern true-crime stories are happy to do, “The Staircase” asks another question, right in its opening epigraph: “Truth?” said Pontius Pilate, “What is that?”

Grade: B+

“The Staircase” premieres three episodes Thursday, May 5 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.

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