The true-crime story has recently dominated scripted television, with numerous miniseries-length examinations of infamous crimes.
Many of these presentations have been uninteresting reenactments that don’t justify the length of time they require, serials that appear more concerned with ticking off a list of “what really happened” than in discovering something transformative in a familiar tale. It, therefore, comes as a surprise when HBO Max’s “The Staircase” does precisely what its title suggests, elevating the spectator to a second, more complex drama.
This program dramatizes the events depicted in the 2004 French documentary series of the same name, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and available on Netflix. Kathleen Peterson’s death in Durham, North Carolina, possibly at the hands of her husband Michael is the subject of both works.
Colin Firth, who is under suspicion in the show’s presence, and Toni Collette, who is oblivious to her impending demise in flashbacks, portray the characters. However, the actual production of “The Staircase” and the emergence of de Lestrade as a character (portrayed by Vincent Vermignon) offer intrigue and insight into how crime and its consequences play out in public.
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The Petersons’ narrative, which is well-known to viewers of de Lestrade’s art, appears both built for the screen and defiant of the kind of simplicity that is most telegenic: It is hardly surprising that de Lestrade had to produce numerous episodes as opposed to a documentary feature.
Kathleen died after falling or seemingly tumbling down the staircase of the family house; a similar event had previously occurred in Michael Peterson’s inner group. In addition to Michael’s awkward, secretive demeanor, the fact that he was an openly bisexual man who kept his sexual orientation a secret from his wife heightened the suspicions around him.
Scenes illustrating Michael’s fumbling attempts to seduce other men utilize Firth’s talent, which he exhibited in “The King’s Speech” and “The English Patient,” to undermine his good looks with terrible insecurity. (These sequences are also a wonderful use of show creator and director Antonio Campos’ talents:
He directed Rebecca Hall to great effect in the 2016 film “Christine,” another work about a person experiencing the sorrow and anger of having a life apart from herself.) And he’s surrounded by talented actors, such as Collette, who makes you feel Kathleen’s inevitable absence by living as loudly as possible, Dane DeHaan as the black sheep of the family’s children, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a defense attorney facing a horrible set of facts and an unpleasant client.
But if not for the de Lestrade figure, these elements might have resulted in a rote retelling of a story already available in documentary form.
The documentary’s part in Michael Peterson’s notoriety would have to be included in any account of his life, yet the appearance of this plotline in this series nevertheless feels revelatory due to the fact that it pulls back the curtain. It illustrates a method of narrative construction that is neither unethical nor wasteful, grinding up the Peterson family tragedy for text.
We first encounter de Lestrade as he sifts through American newspapers with his producing partner Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) in search of a captivating story. When Poncet tells him in French with English subtitles, “Innocent? Guilty? The Peterson conclusion will forever be terrible.”
Journalists and documentary filmmakers have distinct incentives and imperatives; de Lestrade never pretends that he would portray the Peterson tale accurately, and we see him struggle in the editing room to produce tension, even if it is artificial. Michael, who is oblivious to the extent to which his life may change in the future due to his preoccupation with grief and potential guilt, occupies the center of the photograph.
This is a crucial aspect of this captivating drama: the capacity of individuals to adapt under extreme strain. The children in the Peterson family, some of whom were adopted after their own mothers died in a manner similar to Kathleen’s, view the events that are transpiring as yet another indignity in a life filled with tragedy. And Michael’s responses are consistent with the person we’ve met and spent time with: He is eccentric, introspective, and a mystery to himself.
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This expresses itself through de Lestrade’s lens; “The Staircase” skilfully toggles between showing Michael as others perceive him and the way spectators will eventually see him. One might accuse the play of attempting to have it both ways — criticizing our media culture’s insatiable brutality while delighting in it — if both half were not so meticulously crafted and inquisitive.
This series is more interested in posing questions than making assertions. The evidence is less about guilt or innocence in a court-decided case and more about the strangeness and unknowability of the human heart, which is a nice change.
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The Staircase Trailer
HBO Max has published the full trailer for its true-crime limited series The Staircase, which has an all-star cast lead by Colin Firth.
Is the Staircase a Worthwhile Play?
The drama achieves the same eerie atmosphere that captivated viewers of the documentary series.
is the Staircase Based on Real Events?
Investigators were of the opinion that Kathleen’s injuries were not consistent with an accident. The authorities charged Michael with first-degree murder, claiming he killed her with a blow poke that was gone from their residence.
What Did the Woman in the Staircase Die From?
Seven deep lacerations were discovered by the medical examiner on Kathleen’s scalp. It was determined that blunt force trauma caused the fatality.