In 2001, novelist Michael Peterson found his wife Kathleen dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their home. He says she’d taken a couple of Valium pills, been drinking champagne and wine, and must have slipped in the stairwell. The North Carolina state police claim she suffered a brutal death at the hands of her husband. These opposing views formed the premise of 2004 documentary The Staircase. Was Michael Peterson guilty or innocent?
Filmed in 2003 by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the original eight-hour series predates the likes of true-crime behemoths Making A Murderer and The Jinx. In 2018, the rights were acquired by Netflix, which aired the original episodes, alongside two follow-up episodes that came out in 2013 and three new episodes – in short, a cultural phenomenon, alongside numerous viewer theories, was born. Now, HBO has created a dramatized version of the story, which treads familiar ground but adds enough newness to keep those who’ve watched the documentary already intrigued.
The mini-series stars Bafta and Oscar winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) as Michael and Toni Collette (Knives Out, Muriel’s Wedding) as Kathleen. Both are excellent, but especially Firth who nails Peterson’s slipperiness and distinctive nasal voice. Starring alongside him are Michael Stuhlbarg (Your Honor), Juliette Binoche (Chocolat), Dane DeHaan (ZeroZeroZero), Olivia DeJonge (Elvis), Rosemarie DeWitt (Little Fires Everywhere), Tim Guinee (Inventing Anna), Patrick Schwarzenegger (Moxie), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Vincent Vermignon (Romy and Michele's High School Reunion), Odessa Young (Mothering Sunday) and Parker Posey (Lost in Space). Together, the cast take this drama to the next level, especially when Peterson’s family begins to divide and crumble under the pressure of what’s revealed in the courtroom following his arrest.
After beginning with a recreation of Peterson’s desperate 911 calls upon the supposed discovery of his wife’s body, the series launches into the necessary exposition. The Peterson clan is a blended family, and a scene where Kathleen is still alive shows all eight members around the dining table, neatly explaining who everyone is. There’s the two oldest boys, Todd and Clayton, from Michael’s first marriage and Caitlin, from Kathleen’s first marriage. Then there’s Margaret and Martha Ratliff, who Michael adopted after the death of their mother in Germany. At first, all the siblings believe Michael is innocent, but as time goes on – and Kathleen’s sisters Lori and Candace are shown evidence – opinions become fractured, and the family is torn apart.
One of the things that made the original series so compelling was the courtroom scenes, which are among some of the most fascinating and twisting of any true-crime drama we’ve seen. Peterson’s defence attorney, David Rudoph, is charisma personified – to the point where he sold out multiple tours across the UK and US discussing his role in the documentary after the 2018 re-release. Featuring so-called evidence, tampered documents and defence theories that were stranger than fiction (including the fan favourite ‘owl theory'), there’s plenty here to make the dramatised scenes soar while damning the American justice system at the same time.
When the documentary cameras started rolling in 2003, Kathleen was already dead. In this recreation, viewers finally get a glimpse into what she was like as a person. Although she’s usually shown with a drink in hand – supporting Michael’s claims that she was drunk when she met her death on the stairs – she’s depicted as fun, happy and dedicated to her children and it’s lovely to see her shown as a 3D character, rather than a series of holiday photos or – worse – in post-death evidence shots. This new depth makes it even grislier when we see her lying on the autopsy table, with the 35 lacerations that were found of the back of her head glaringly obvious.
But where The Staircase really gets interesting is when it gets meta. In a new twist, we’re taken behind the camera as documentary director de Lestrade becomes a character (played by Vermignon). For better or worse, we watch him, and his producer, decide that this particular tragedy will make a gripping study, and we later see him play fast and loose with what he perceives to be the truth. Michael Peterson has always maintained his innocence. But ultimately, this new series is not about whether he is guilty or innocent. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the ethics of making an immersive documentary that really gets under the skin of the family members left in the wake of a death. There have been plenty of true crime remakes recently – Inventing Anna, The Dropout – but this one is the best we’ve seen in a long time.
The Staircase is available to watch on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Thursday 5th May, and on Now.