UK TV review: The Staircase (2022)
Truth and objectivity7
Helen Archer | On 12, Jun 2022
When news of the dramatised version of the iconic long-form documentary The Staircase dropped, many were dubious about what more it could possibly bring to the table. The death of Kathleen Peterson in Durham, North Carolina in 2001, followed by the trial of her husband Michael for her murder, is surely one of the most examined crimes in recent memory. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade directed the original eight-part documentary in 2004, which became a blueprint for future true crime series. It was screened on Netflix with an additional five episodes in 2018 (read our review here). A dramatised version, star-studded as it is, seemed superfluous.
And to an extent, so it has proved, which is not to say that The Staircase, co-created and co-written by Anthony Campos and Maggie Cohn, is without merit. While we are very used to seeing making-of documentaries for fictitious films, a making-of fiction about a factual documentary is something rarer and throws up interesting questions about the ways in which true crime is shaped – questions surrounding objectivity, subjectivity, and the very nature of truth.
In the early episodes of the miniseries the recreation of the documentary itself is wholly breathtaking. Shots and scenes are rendered so accurately it is as though we are in the room filming, along with de Lestrade (played here by Vincent Vermignon). Parker Posey as Freda Black, Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudolph and Cullen Moss as Jim Hardin are not merely lookalikes of the original legal teams; they take on their bluster, their mannerisms, their egos and their frailties so accurately as to be indistinguishable from the original. The first few episodes are like a giant Easter egg of references. For true crime nerds, it’s a meta, postmodernist goldmine.
However, in this case, there’s more to the documentary-making than first meets the eye. It was revealed in 2018 that the editor of the original documentary series, Sophie Brunet, had begun a correspondence with Peterson while he was in jail, which would later develop into a romantic relationship. She was responsible for pushing the infamous “owl theory” – that Kathleen had been attacked by an owl, who had left the abrasions on her scalp, before becoming disoriented and falling down the stairs. The theory was the cause of much ridicule when it emerged – the seemingly desperate Michael clutching at straws to prove his innocence.
Here, Sophie is played by Juliette Binoche, while Colin Firth takes on the role of Michael, in a turn which is sinisterly unreadable, much like the man himself. The small gestures, his posture, the way in which he clasps his hands together, is not an impression of Michael and yet it is immediately recognisable. But access to the inner thoughts of these people remains unreachable – Peterson because he was never wholly truthful to the documentary makers or the public at large and Sophie because she never truly engaged with this series’ production team. Her character becomes frustrating towards the end of the drama, as she posits one theory after another in order to prove Peterson’s innocence, at one stage seeming to acknowledge the possibility of his guilt, before continuing to push for his release. Her motivations for uprooting her life to spend years embroiled in his world remain unexamined.
The main difference between documentary and drama is the inclusion of Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson. Often, true crime documentaries are accused of disappearing the victim – naturally, as they are usually deceased, it is left to their friends and family to speak for them; as characters in their own right, they are voiceless. Toni Collette brings Kathleen to magnificent life as a ball of stress, strong yet uptight, and towards the end of her life flailing in frustration with job and family worries, sexually open to Michael but exasperated by his lack of financial or emotional contribution to their household.
The latter part of the series fleshes out the rest of the Peterson family, played by Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Olivia DeJonge, Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger, along with Kathleen’s family, specifically Rosemarie DeWitt as Kathleen’s sister, Candace, in all her rage and her fury. And yet, despite having the time to spend on these characters – who were peripheral in the documentary series even as they attempted to make sense of their history, and their father’s guilt or innocence – they remain opaque. It is not helped by the choppy structure, which weaves together three timelines, so that every time dramatic tension rises in one it cuts away to another, leaving the audience floundering in its wake.
For fans of true crime, the drama seems like something of a missed opportunity to tell the Petersons’ story with a little more nuance. What starts out as a fascinating glimpse into the making of a true crime documentary loses its way around the halfway mark, becoming a family drama where the centre does not hold. One cannot help but feel that, despite the myriad ways in which this story is retold, we are no closer to getting to the bottom of the mystery at the heart of this strange family – that we’re trapped on Escher’s infinite staircase, each climbing in different directions, but ultimately taking us nowhere.