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Step by step, ‘The Staircase’ brings nuance to a murder mystery

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in "The Staircase."HBO Max

HBO Max’s “The Staircase” is yet another look into a case that has been true-crimed a zillion times already. The tragic and twisty story of novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, either accidentally fell down the stairs in their home or was murdered, has been standard fodder for TV news magazines and tabloid media since Kathleen’s 2001 death. The verité 13-episode French docuseries about Peterson and his family, also called “The Staircase,” which aired here in 2005 and was updated in 2013 and 2018, is one of the prime movers behind the current true-crime TV trend.

So I was not expecting much from this umpteenth take, which is a scripted version of the saga from Antonio Campos of “The Devil All the Time” and “The Sinner.” But “The Staircase,” which premieres on Thursday, is a beautifully done miniseries, and revelatory, too, as it expands the North Carolina case into something more philosophically provocative than its sensationalistic origins might have suggested. The eight-parter isn’t just an anatomy of the possible crime and trial; it’s an anatomy of the American justice system, the impossibility of objectivity and truth, the agendas that determine how documentaries are made, and, most acutely of all, the baffling and ultimately inscrutable nature of human behavior.


It’s also a reminder of the genius of Colin Firth, who, as Michael Peterson, is at the center of the show and holds it expertly. It’s a cliché to say that an actor disappears into his role, but there it is. Firth captures Peterson’s physicality, but, more powerfully, he captures his contradictions as a man who can seem alternately guilty, innocent, untruthful, honest, family-oriented, self-centered, sincere, droll, and more. He shows how a scripted version of a real person can offer even more, in some ways, than footage of that real person, as the camera follows his every emotional shift, no matter how slight or ambiguous. Peterson is opaque, as withheld information about his sexuality and the circumstances of a death in his past emerge as big surprises to Peterson’s lawyer, David Rudolf (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg). And yet Firth provides us with a faceted portrayal that transcends whether or not Peterson is a liar or a dissembler.

Campos gives us a rich portrait of the blended Peterson family as they respond to the shocking death of Kathleen — and then, piece by piece, he disassembles that happy and supportive portrait. Every surface in “The Staircase” has something beneath it, it seems, as the probing camera moves stealthily through the family’s large house. Once the French crew shows up to film, the camerawork at times lapses into their handheld technique, and the series itself opens up further to consider how narratives about the case are constructed subjectively. We see director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) debate the point of their piece of nonfiction — a debate that will later bring in a pivotal character played by Juliette Binoche.


Firth is at the top of a cast that is all aces. As Kathleen in the many flashbacks, Toni Collette provides the entire series with a strong and important sense of the hard-working, warm woman behind it all. As those who loved her grieve, we have a good understanding of their loss. All of the children are vivid, more and more so as the strain of the trial takes its toll and as they learn new, potentially damning facts about Michael. Sophie Turner and Odessa Young are Michael’s adopted daughters, who cling to their belief in his innocence, as do Michael’s two biological sons, played by Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger. Kathleen’s only biological child, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), is with them at first, but she falls under the influence of Kathleen’s angry sister Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt), and she leaves the house.


As the family bonds weaken, we see how, regardless of Michael’s innocence or guilt, Kathleen’s death has broken open long-simmering differences. It’s a second tragedy. As you might expect, there’s not much humor afoot in the five episodes of the miniseries that were available for review, but Parker Posey ushers some in as Assistant District Attorney Freda Black. From her extreme Southern accent to the way she latches onto Michael’s bisexuality as a way to bring him down, she’s darkly comic. Her version of the crime has Michael murdering Kathleen after she learns of his relations with men — something Michael insists Kathleen knew about. She’s a bit ridiculous, but “The Staircase,” in its impressively broad sweep, entertains her version seriously and, in one of the re-creations of Kathleen’s death, hauntingly.


Starring: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Juliette Binoche, Sophie Turner, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Dane DeHaan, Parker Posey, Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young

On: HBO Max

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.