How ‘The Staircase’ on HBO Max reframes Michael Peterson case


Some history: In 2001, in the city of Durham, N.C., Michael Peterson, a writer and sometime political candidate, either did or did not kill his wife, Kathleen, who either fell down a flight or stairs or was beaten to death at its foot. A French television crew, under the direction of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, arrived soon after Peterson was accused of murder and produced an eight-episode docuseries detailing the trial from preparation to verdict — “The Staircase,” a Peabody Award-winning early model for the twist-and-turn true-crime documentaries and podcasts that have come to clutter the cultural landscape; subsequent episodes were added, updating the story with new developments through 2017. (The 13-episode complete set is available on Netflix.)

Still, as to guilt or innocence, things remain less than perfectly clear. For the armchair judge, it is not so much a matter of who you believe — there being improbabilities and weirdnesses in both the prosecution and defense — as who you don’t. And though you may form an opinion, you can never really know; indeed, it may be this very inconclusiveness that has kept the case alive in the public imagination. The only thing people like more than a mystery may be a mystery they can’t solve.

This history has now been converted into an HBO Max miniseries, also titled “The Staircase,” with Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen. Created by Antonio Campos (“The Devil All the Time”), who also directs several episodes, and Maggie Cohn (“American Crime Story”), it’s not the first such adaptation — a 2007 Lifetime movie, “The Staircase Murders,” preceded it, to little acclaim — but it covers miles more ground, is not without ideas and marshals the power of HBO to gather stars, budget and screen time. And is good, if at times unavoidably problematic. (Five of eight episodes have been made available for review; the original trial ends halfway through the series.)

With the Peterson case having been meticulously reported or revisited in various books, true-crime television episodes and podcasts, one may reasonably ask: What is the point? There is, of course, the purely commercial attraction of revisiting a True-Crime Classic in an era that owes it much, and the advantage of borrowing energy and interest from a sensational event That Really Happened.

There is the promise of going behind closed doors, into the unrevealed personal lives of Michael and Kathleen and their blended family of adult children — an empty promise, given that those bits are necessarily invented, but the promise that powers all docudramas. And, fair enough, there is a drama only such inventions can deliver, and it’s executed well here. It’s a pro job. But if you’re interested in the facts behind the fact-based fiction, there is little new to learn. (There is one major addition/revelation, but, as they say in court, it has no bearing on the case.)

A woman at the dining room table with her family

Toni Collette in “The Staircase.”

(HBO Max)

In documentary and docudrama alike, it’s not hard to grow a little weary of Peterson, with his insistence that everything in his life was finer than fine and habit of holding back potentially damaging information until someone else shoves it in his face, and then dismissing it as unimportant or merely a matter of semantics. It’s not difficult to portray a narcissist — it’s done all the time in movies and on television, and viewers know the signs — but it’s trickier to tackle a character whose personality might, in one performance, either mistakenly or accurately lead you to find him guilty. A lack of appropriate response — in one scene, De Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) asks Michael to show more emotion as he walks the film crew through the house and the events of the fatal night — might or might not mean something. Unlike some other players here, Firth is not especially reminiscent of his real-world model; but he ekes a person out of the material, and he does keep you guessing.

The narrative jumps around in time, sometimes quickly, which among other things gives the viewer a chance to visit the Petersons before they were news and Colette the opportunity to play scenes other than as a corpse. (It does feel a little wayward at times, contributing to the occasional sense that the series might never end.) As with Michael’s doubleness, some care is taken to let us see her as conceivably the victim of a murder or an accident, as perfectly happy and less than perfectly happy, a true-crime Schrödinger’s cat.

Where De Lestrade’s documentary concentrates on the judicial process at great length, with its brainstorming sessions, focus groups and roving bands of experts, Campos wants to fill in spaces his predecessor didn’t explore, almost all surrounding the family. Campos adds tension into their relationships, on what authority I can’t say. The kids (Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Dane DeHaan and Olivia DeJonge) don’t always get along with each other or their parents; some of have problems of their own. Kathleen is oppressed by her job.

Despite the added tension, the series is made with a dedication to keeping things from getting too sensational, too declamatory, too actorish. The exposition is nicely integrated into the action, which is a benefit of length — more room to buffer the facts with conversation. The trial scenes have the plodding airlessness of the real thing; as district attorney Jim Hardin, Cullen Moss is not afraid to pull the usual lawyerly intensity out of his performance; and though Parker Posey, as assistant prosecutor Freda Black, brought on for “a strong, fierce feminine presence,” might seem exaggerated, the flamboyance was all Black’s. As Michael’s lawyer, David Rudolf, Michael Stuhlbarg is similarly true to his model.

Two attorneys confer in a courtroom

Parker Posey and Cullen Moss in “The Staircase.”

(HBO Max)

As portrayed here, De Lestrade desires to make a film “about justice, but how it truly is — with the defense, prosecution, judge all saying different things about the same crime,” and the most conceptually interesting parts of Campos’ “Staircase” focus on the filmmakers; they occupy a sort of third side, from which they can comment both on their subject and on the difficulties, even the impossibilities of their own task at hand. (In a nice visual metaphor, putting a frame inside the frame, we first glimpse Michael’s trial onscreen in an editing bay.) In Durham diners and Paris post-production studios, the director and his producer, Denis Poncet (Frank Feys), debate Michael’s guilt or innocence and argue about cinematic neutrality.

Because the Durham police and district attorney, initially cooperative, stopped participating in the documentary, giving the defense the lion’s share of screen time, De Lestrade’s series can feel a little partisan, if also less than decisive; for similar reasons, and some additional ones, Campos’ dramatic version is also not perfectly balanced, though he’s clearly tried to make it so. (Both the prosecution and the defense versions of what happened the night Kathleen died are dramatized.) Still, he has avowedly been working on this movie since 2008, and one would guess he has formed an opinion or two along the way.

These scenes become a kind of disquisition not only on the limits of documentary filmmaking, but by extension on the series they’re in — and truth itself. “Even when I know that he’s telling the truth it can sound like a lie,” De Lestrade says of Michael; Poncet thinks his 911 call sounds like something out of a bad movie. That this is very much the point is established from the series’ biblical epigram (from Pontius Pilate, of all people), “What is truth?,” before you can even ask.

Campos’ version of “The Staircase” is a well researched work of the imagination, but straight documentary film also has its limitations. Even at eight hours, the original “Staircase” left out more than 500 hours of footage. Subjects too leave things out. They tell lies. They might play to the camera or be intimidated by it. And the camera isn’t everywhere all the time. The real strength of cinéma vérité may be that it inspires questions — questions about people, and how they are, and our own judgments — rather than delivering answers. (The original French title of “The Staircase” is “Soupçons” — “Suspicions.”)

Finally, the ambiguities of the miniseries within the miniseries the French crew is making here echoes the ambiguities of the adversarial justice system they’re examining. “Twelve jurors declare one of the stories the winner, and that story becomes justice,” says Juliette Binoche, playing a character the network has officially declared a spoiler, contemplating the question “What is justice?”

“Justice is a construct, little more than a game, a game that shapes the outcome of a man’s life.”

‘The Staircase’

Where: HBO Max

When: Anytime, starting May 5

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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