'The Staircase' review: Colin Firth series finds new drama beyond original documentary

·5-min read
Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and Toni Colette (Kathleen Peterson) in The Staircase (Sky)
Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and Toni Colette (Kathleen Peterson) in The Staircase (Sky)

Badly injured and barely conscious Kathleen Peterson lay dying at the bottom of the staircase. This fact provided Jean-Xavier de Lestrade with the title and subject for seminal true crime documentary which won him the Peabody award in 2014. Now adapted into a limited series due to hit Sky Atlantic and NOW on 5 May, The Staircase is an intriguing proposition.

Featuring a slew of A-list character actors including Oscar-winner Colin Firth and Oscar-nominee Toni Colette, it still has work to do considering the breadth of Lestrade’s original work.

For that reason, audiences may wonder whether a dramatisation can really add anything more to the mix.

Read more: Everything new on Sky and NOW in May

What becomes apparent from the off is how engaged writer director Antonio Campos really is with his subject matter.

Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) in The Staircase (Sky)
Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) in The Staircase (Sky)

For viewers familiar with the Michael Peterson documentary there are so many elements which are woven in early on, that it is hard not to be riveted. Aside from the grizzly precision of specific details pertaining to this crime, Campos is savvy enough to keep events grounded.

Using an intricate flashback structure which cleverly weaves timelines together in a visual collage, Campos, who directs 6 of the 8 episodes, boils down this drama to its essence. Siblings within the Peterson clan including Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner), all play crucial roles. However, the dynamic between Kathleen and Michael offers the most dramatic meat.

Colin Firth as Michael Peterson & Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson in The Staircase (Sky/Warner Bros.)
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson & Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson in The Staircase (Sky/Warner Bros.)

This adaptation adds depth to Kathleen and visually expands on her backstory, making the presence of Toni Colette essential to everything which follows. Colin Firth is equally engaging as the enigmatic Michael Peterson, who effortlessly compartmentalises so many different elements of his persona. Not only giving this story an additional dimension beyond the documentary, but ensuring that The Staircase feels Hitchcockian in origin.

Read more: New on Disney+ in May

Beyond the central relationship which defines this true crime adaptation, other supporting players of note include David Rudolph (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee). One solely concerned with determining the truth, while the other comes with conflicted allegiances as befits an older sibling. However, in both cases each character brings their own perspective to an already crowded table.

Watch a trailer for The Staircase

Bill Peterson is Michael’s brother and acts as an emotional counsel and keeper of secrets. From a dramatic point of view, this allows audiences to empathise through an impartial observer. David Rudolph on the other hand, is charged with presenting facts, delivering some bitter pills and establishing the truth minus any smoke screens.

However, The Staircase has more than just a solid ensemble cast to recommend it, as Antonio Campos also seeks to merge fact and fiction in a series of audacious meta moments.

The Staircase (Sky/HBO)
The Staircase (Sky/HBO)

By bringing in a fictionalised version of documentarian Jean-Xavier Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), The Staircase starts to take on a new persona. One that means the worlds of artistic licence and true crime reality begin to blur for the better.

Read more: New on Prime Video in May

For people who have watched the Netflix expose this may prove to be a defining moment, as meta and murderous intent are permanently melded together. However, by that point this drama should have its hooks buried so deep, that this will be just another cherry on the cake.

Based on a true story, THE STAIRCASE explores the life of Michael Peterson, his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
Based on a true story, THE STAIRCASE explores the life of Michael Peterson, his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

As the series continues to gain momentum and Firth dominates and fluctuates, both in his emotional and psychological depiction of Peterson, The Staircase begins to carve out its own identity. Campos gets more and more inventive with his in-camera techniques, while continuing to blur time lines and wrongfoot the audience.

Whether it succeeds in solving any unanswered questions that may linger from the documentary is up for debate. There is no doubt that people will get a better understanding of Kathleen from this adaptation, yet even after this Michael may well remain an enigma. However, those factors should never detract from how successful The Staircase truly is in dramatic terms.

Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) in The Staircase (Sky)
Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) in The Staircase (Sky)

It really delves into the ambiguities of contemporary relationships, whilst casting a non-critical eye over what some people are prepared to compromise for love. Every couple hides their secrets, makes their choices and lives, for the most part, with any consequences which may occur.

What The Staircase tries to do is find the humanity within this ill-fated union, that kept them together until death stepped in.

Beyond that, this limited series offers audiences something else to ponder, as it effectively explores the impact of a murder charge on personal relationships. Not something that can be said of every drama that comes down the pipe, as not every murder mystery comes with its own set of York notes.

An addition which is not only essential on this occasion, but may actually be beneficial.

The Staircase premieres with three episodes on 5 May exclusively on streaming service NOW with the Entertainment Membership. New episodes will be released weekly thereafter.