wed 30/11/2022

The Staircase, NOW review - addictive dramatisation of real-life murder investigation | reviews, news & interviews

The Staircase, NOW review - addictive dramatisation of real-life murder investigation

The Staircase, NOW review - addictive dramatisation of real-life murder investigation

Colin Firth visits the dark side as suspected killer Michael Peterson

Colin Firth (centre) as Michael Peterson, Michael Stuhlbarg (left) as David Rudolf and Justice Leak as Tom Maher

The real-life case of Michael Peterson and the death of his wife Kathleen in 2001 has generated a steady stream of TV documentaries, though this new series from HBO Max (showing on NOW) is the first time anybody has actually dramatised the story. With Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen, it’s a compelling mix of conspiracy theory, forensic detective thriller and legal drama, bristling with false trails and tantalising clues.

The discovery of Kathleen’s battered and blood-soaked body at the bottom of the staircase at the family’s home in Durham, North Carolina sets the ball rolling. It was Michael who found the body and called the emergency services, and while his account seems superficially plausible, the police and medical examiners are soon finding reasons to doubt that Kathleen’s tumble down the staircase was merely an alcohol-fuelled accident, as her husband claims. Wounds on the body cause the experts to believe she may have been beaten to death, though the autopsy was inconclusive. The pathologist initially concluded that she’d bled to death.

The plot thickens in a variety of ways. Michael, we learn, is a novelist who wrote books based on his experiences in the Vietnam war, though the revelation that what he claimed was a wound he'd suffered in combat was in fact an injury from a road accident suggests something about his character. He now writes a column for the local newspaper, where he has been outspoken in his criticisms of the police and the District Attorney, and he has ambitions to become involved in local politics. When the police start turning his home and the minutiae of his life upside down, he suspects they’re delivering some payback. “It’s a witch hunt,” he snorts.

A back-and-forth time scheme counterpoints the family history of the Peterson family against the progress of the investigation, and every fact or event seems susceptible to being undermined at any moment. We see the family enjoying emotional scenes round the dinner table (pictured above), taking it in turns to express their love and affection for one another, but cracks soon begin to appear in the happy-clappy facade. It transpires that none of the five children is actually the product of the Michael-Kathleen marriage, since they’re all either adopted or from the partners’ previous spouses. As the case against Michael gathers pace, their different allegiances start to reveal themselves.

When Michael’s secret life as a bisexual man comes to light, the prosecution think they might have found their magic bullet, until, drolly, investigations reveal that many of Durham’s most upstanding male citizens have similarly complicated private lives. DA Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) realises that it’s more than his job’s worth to pursue this particular line of inquiry.

Meanwhile, some meta-drama is thrown into the mix via the portrayal of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s French documentary team who made the 2004 documentary series The Staircase (Soupçons in French). After Michael has given his explanation to their camera about what happened the night his wife died, the director tells him it was OK but doesn’t have the intimacy they want. Could he do it again? It’s like an echo of the way a courtroom trial can often seem more like a TV drama than purely a search for facts and the “truth”.

A batch of powerful performances help to lend this fantastical tale plenty of dramatic gravitas. Collette excels as Kathleen, a driven career woman with a high-pressure executive job with the Nortel corporation who understandably likes to get a little rowdy during her leisure time. Parker Posey is formidable as abrasive Assistant DA Freda Black. The brilliantly versatile Michael Stuhlbarg is bang on the money as Michael’s top-dollar defence lawyer David Rudolf, though even so hard-boiled a professional as he is flabbergasted when he learns that Elizabeth Ratliff, the mother of Peterson’s adopted daughters Martha and Margaret, was found dead at the bottom of her staircase 15 years earlier.

At the centre of it all is Firth. Frequently cast in parts which require him to embody spotless integrity, he guilefully portrays Peterson as a man lacking a moral centre. He’s a patriarch and apparent pillar of his community who gradually becomes an increasingly plausible murder suspect as small, damning details start to stack up against him. Can he prove he didn’t do it? Can the cops prove he did?

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