As any true crime aficionado knows, the truth of who killed Kathleen Peterson is a complicated one. The French-produced miniseries by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade spends so much time with its subject, Michael Peterson, from his criminal trial to his time in jail through to his eventual release, that the documentary was given total access. Of course, the years since The Staircase‘s debut have taken a bit of the shine away from the docuseries, which has faced controversial accusations for painting Michael Peterson in a particularly flattering light. Peterson, who would go on to date the editor of the documentary, Sophie Brunet, might not seem guilty in the docuseries, but how can you trust it to be unbiased?
The Staircase HBO Max series tackles all of this and more. From the documentary team to the complicated relationships between the Peterson family to a look into Michael’s past with Kathleen, the series shines a light on the dark corners of the original docuseries. Created by Antonio Campos, Colin Firth stars as Michael Peterson, with Toni Collette starring as Kathlee through flashbacks. The star-studded series also casts Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudolph, Dane DeHaan as Clayton Peterson, Patrick Schwarzenegger as Todd Peterson, Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff, Parker Posey as Freda Black, and Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet.
The highlight of the season has to be Firth’s metamorphosis into the novelist-turned-murder-suspect. If you’ve seen the true-crime docuseries (and you should if you endeavor to watch the HBO series), there are moments when Firth sounds so much like the real Michael Peterson that it is a truly chilling performance. Collette is stirring as Kathleen, who we obviously never get to meet in the docuseries but get to know quite well in the show. While Peterson has always maintained that he and Kathleen were soul mates, the series and Collette’s performance give off a far more balanced approach to her character.
Because there is so much footage to go off of, it’s hard to really tell which actors slip into caricature when they’re playing their characters. Posey’s Freda Black was already a larger-than-life figure whose homophobic rant in the courtroom is one of the most vivid scenes from the docuseries, Posey’s performance of the character with her lilting Southern twang seems extreme but might just hit the nail on the head. Turner’s Margaret Ratliff does not lean in far enough into the real Margaret’s mannerisms, but perhaps putting some distance between the real and the fictional is best
Firth, for his part, looks nothing like Michael Peterson. At 61, he hasn’t really managed to shake his persona as Colin Firth, but he gets the voice down pat and he embodies the soul of Michael. A man who is both incredibly charming and also unreasonably unlikeable. Even if you believe he might be innocent of his wife’s murder, there’s just something kind of pretentious or oily about the guy that Firth grasps.
The story’s willingness to dive into the bias of the documentary and the look at the biased editing process that took place when The Staircase docuseries is what the HBO series offers that is new. Not just a direct adaptation based on the French documentary, it offers a criticism of the documentarians while also putting the audience into the shoes of its creators. One person advocates for Peterson’s innocence, and the other thinks he’s guilty. As the story spirals outside of the Peterson family, a larger portrait of the story is painted. If you’re familiar with the case and you’ve seen the original documentary, there’s not much new to glean. But the fresh perspective and the performances are more than enough to justify its existence.
This spoiler-free review was based on screeners of the entire series of The Staircase.