Television and cinema are full of stories of people who committed crimes and almost got away with them. There are far too many real-life cases that are intriguing, and often, disturbing, enough for someone to greenlight a project dramatizing them, allowing a new audience to experience the horrors and injustice that captivated viewers in real time when they were happening. While some may be averse to the recent onslaught of such adaptations, The Staircase tells a deeply fascinating and complicated tale that manages to be equally haunting and compelling.
When local Durham, North Carolina politician and author Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) finds his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), dead and covered in blood at the bottom of the stairs, he calls the police in a panic. As his children, from his first marriage, adoptions, and Kathleen’s first marriage, come together to mourn, doubts begin to emerge about the circumstances of Kathleen’s death. When Michael is arrested on suspicion of her murder, he becomes increasingly adamant that he did not do it as those around him question how much they really know about him.
The Staircase should come with a content warning for its violence. Scientific experts attempt to reconstruct what happened and how Kathleen could have fallen to her grisly death, and while those simulations are detailed and unpleasant, there are also scenes that show what was alleged to have happened in an entirely uncensored and gruesome fashion. Whether Kathleen was murdered or not, something that those with a working knowledge of recent history or a tendency to do internet research when starting a new series will be able to find out, all depictions of the circumstances surrounding her death are vivid and unsettling.
The casting of Firth, an actor who won an Oscar for portraying King George VI in The King’s Speech and is well-known for comedies like Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary, is certainly an interesting choice. Fortunately, it’s an effective one, since the man typically known for being charming and frequently tongue-tied is anything but here. Michael is an overconfident, egotistical man who only becomes more aggressive when challenged, which hardly makes him seem innocent when the very idea of an accusation has him on edge and irritated. His American accent is equally unexpected, but this questionable direction turns out to be an extraordinarily productive one.
Given the size of Michael and Kathleen’s extended family, there is considerable talent to be found in the supporting cast as well. There is no one particular standout, with each getting an appropriate focus relevant to their attachment to the case, and the information and perspective they can provide. As the children, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, and Olivia DeJonge all bring a complex understanding of their characters. Among the adults, Michael Stuhlbarg and Rosemarie DeWitt both deliver strong turns as the lawyer defending Michael and the woman most intent on seeing him found guilty, respectively.
At the core of The Staircase is a mystery that unfolds through constantly shifting time periods, dating back to long before the deadly event and flashing to the much more recent future, well after Kathleen has died and most have moved on with their lives. It contains its share of startling revelations that make for great television, which relate more to the way the case unfolds than a sensationalizing of the events themselves that affected real people. For fans of true-crime books and podcasts, this TV version should hit all the key notes, enriching a story well worth mining for the presence of humanity and hints of true darkness.
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The first three episodes of The Staircase premiere on HBO Max on Thursday, May 5th, with one new episode premiering every Thursday after that.