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In the world of true crime, there are only a handful of canonical texts. For books, the prototype is, perhaps, In Cold Blood. For films, Capturing the Friedmans. And for the televisual medium, it might well be Oscar-winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 mini-series, The Staircase, a twisting examination of those two great mazes: the American criminal justice system, and family life.
The fate that inevitably befalls any successful narrative documentary – a fictionalised remake – has now descended upon The Staircase, in the form of Antonio Campos’s eight-part HBO Max mini-series. Colin Firth leads the ensemble cast as Michael Peterson, a Vietnam War veteran and author of historical novels, who finds himself embroiled in a murder trial after his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. She fell, he claims, but a stomach-churning crime scene (it looks “like the woman’s head exploded”, according to the police) tells a different story. And, fair warning, The Staircase’s re-enactment of various hypotheses should not be watched after a heavy meal. Thus begins a protracted legal saga, with the Peterson family thrust into the limelight, indiscretions and historical tragedies rising to the surface in the process.
And family is everything here, as the casting reflects. Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner plays adopted daughter Margaret, while The Amazing Spiderman 2’s Dane DeHaan is troubled eldest son Clayton (it’s a huge testament to DeHaan’s skincare regimen that, at nearly 40, he can still comfortably play a college kid). The Society’s Olivia DeJonge, Shirley’s Odessa Young, and the State of California’s Patrick Schwarzenegger round out the extended Peterson clan.
“One piece of advice,” Michael is told by his lawyer, David Rudolf (a calming, as ever, Michael Stuhlbarg), “keep your family close. You’ll need them on your side.” And as the shifting sands of evidence and opinion swirl in the courtroom, so too do the brittle relationships of siblings and parents in the Peterson mansion. Outside the nuclear family, the show has put together a cast of some of the most underrated actors at work today: in addition to Stuhlbarg, Parker Posey, Rosemarie DeWitt and Juliette Binoche all make appearances. But, for all the quality of the supporting acts, this is still Firth’s baby. He has too much innate glamour to fully capture Peterson’s seediness, but they share the same photogenic magnetism.
With any remake there is an unavoidable but lazy tendency to review the original, instead of the new incarnation. But what made the documentary version of The Staircase an extraordinary work was not the details of the crime itself (indeed, by the standards of televised violence, it’s all quite mundane) but the unparalleled access to the trial’s protagonist, Michael Peterson. Peterson was a slippery presence in the narrative, charismatic but shifty, and the question posed again and again was: how much of this is an act? And however competent Firth’s performance is, the simple act of fictionalising the story removes that question. The acting is definitely acting. It erases the element of voyeurism, that sense of the viewer becoming the 13th juror, and replaces it with something more concrete but altogether less captivating.
“I want to show something strong,” announces Vincent Vermignon’s Jean-Xavier (a version of the original project’s director, who became a long-term presence in the Peterson house), “With the defence, the prosecution, the judge all saying different things about the same crime.” That ambition, in the hands of this dramatisation, is as capricious as the show’s protagonist. Campos brings visual panache to the project – interspersing, for example, scenes of a fundraiser for Peterson’s abortive mayoral campaign with a walkthrough of the crime scene by a squad of forensic experts – but can never quite surmount the old aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction. “Every man deserves a second chance,” Peterson declares, but it would be good for Hollywood to remember that, sometimes, the first effort is enough.
‘The Staircase’ debuts on Thursday 5 May on HBO Max in the US and Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK