The first three installments of HBO Max’s “The Staircase” are now streaming. I’ve seen five of the eight in this limited series, based on the long-form documentary of the same name.
The short-form review of the adaptation? Exceptionally good.
Amid a river of true-crime dramatizations featuring big names side-eyeing their co-stars while contemplating murder, or their characters’ tragically misunderstood innocence, this one knows what it’s doing. It sets a tone, gets everybody in the same movie and focuses on character interaction in long, fluid takes, glance by glance, bizarre development by development.
Series creator, screenwriter and director Antonio Campos does the best work of his career here, intertwining past and present in ways that might look vexing or needlessly fussy on the page, but unfold effortlessly on screen. He connects narratively the members of an extended family whose individual, uneasily blended lives were yanked further out of joint by what happened one night in December 2001, in the Forest Hills district of Durham, N.C.
The “what” is plain enough. Kathleen Peterson (Toni Colette), a business executive married to novelist, columnist and aspiring politician Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), died either by bloody accident or a brutal murder committed by her husband. There are other theories, one known as “the owl theory,” but that arrives later in “The Staircase.”
Despite a facade of togetherness and regular, wisecracking family dinners, the Petersons had their secrets, Michael especially. He kept his sexual encounters with men to himself, more or less. From his defense attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family, he withheld a whopper of a fact regarding the fate of an old family friend from Germany, when Michael was in his first marriage. This is no spoiler, since it’s in the trailer, but: What are the odds that one man, who lied about his military record and many other things, was the last person to see not one but two women alive before they expired, in a heap, at the bottom of two different staircases decades apart?
“The Staircase” follows Michael’s legal travails across many years, as well as the shifting dynamics within a family benumbed by secrecy. Michael’s sons from his first marriage, Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton (Dane DeHaan, a stealth MVP here in a very fine ensemble), stake out their financial and emotional holds on their increasingly cash-strapped father. Kathleen’s daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner), Martha (Odessa Young) and Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) veer between loyalty to Michael and questions about how their mother died.
All this was explored in the French-made documentary released in its initial form in 2004, when Michael was behind bars but before …. well, again, it’s in the trailer. Over the years, with new developments afoot, that documentary (also titled “The Staircase”) expanded into a 13-part nonfiction account now streaming on Netflix.
No point in seeing it right now, I think. The Campos dramatization on HBO Max deserves its own audience without too-fresh memories of the documentary for competition. For a time, the HBO Max treatment was in development with Harrison Ford in the Michael Peterson role. That would’ve been a considerable dramatic stretch in more than one direction; Ford’s more of a one-note-at-a-time movie star, and this Michael Peterson never played fewer than three or four simultaneously.
Firth’s simmering interpretation of this extremely dodgy personality is a low-keyed triumph, and takes care of your needs straight off, primarily by not making the armchair guessing game of Peterson’s guilt or innocence too easy. (Oddly, the documentary’s copious footage of Peterson across the years tips things far more clearly toward: Do not believe this man.) If director Campos had prioritized finding someone more physically akin to Peterson, he’d have gone for someone like John C. McGinley, a first-rate actor who tends to play a character’s inner tensions on the surface. Firth, fully engaged and on his game here, creates a man not so much multifaceted as blandly inscrutable, weirdly chipper and, in the end, a riddle even to himself.
The scripts by Campos and his fellow showrunner Maggie Cohn tee up the visual approach. Often we’re switching from events prior to Kathleen’s death to events long afterward. But the toggling back and forth is anything but predictable or conventional. In Episode 2, for example, the same physical space (the Peterson home) plays host to a political fundraiser hosted by Michael and Kathleen as well as a crime-scene investigation taking place years later. With Campos’ expert staging and a snakelike camera roaming the mansion halls, we get the sense of disorientation we need to make sense of a timeline that, to Michael, at least, must have felt disorienting, all right.
We’ll see how and where Campos and company take it in the final three episodes. So far “The Staircase” makes the wearyingly popular true crime genre look easy.
“The Staircase” — 3.5 stars
Content rating: TV-MA (violence, language, sexual material)
Running time: Eight episodes, approximately eight hours.
How to watch: First three episodes now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes weekly through June 9.
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