Length: 8 x episodes (60+ minutes each)
Some nights, when you’re in bed trying to sleep, your brain decides to play silly buggers, assailing you with impossible to answer questions. Stuff like “why are we here?”, “was that rash there yesterday?” and “do you reckon Michael Peterson killed his missus or nah?”
The latter question has been plaguing true crime fans since the early 2000s, when the first version of The Staircase, by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, appeared and then got a shot in the arm when Netflix picked up the expanded 13-part docuseries in 2018.
The latest iteration of this story is a slick, gorgeous and often heartbreaking dramatisation starring two acting legends, Colin Firth and our own Toni Collette. However, The Staircase (2022) might just leave you with more questions than ever.
The Staircase is the story of married couple Michael (Colin Firth) and Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette). One night, in December 2001, Kathleen is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Michael calls the incident in, sobbing and distraught, claiming his wife has had an accident.
However, as police begin to investigate the incident, things just don’t seem to add up. Why is there so much blood? Why is Kathleen’s scalp damaged in a way that could indicate blunt force trauma? Was this accident anything but?
These questions, maddening and unknowable, form the backbone of the drama in The Staircase. You’ll find yourself going from “yeah, he did it” to “well, actually, maybe not” and back again several times in each episode.
The thing is, that’s not even close to all The Staircase has to offer.
Firstly, you’ve got the leads. This is some of Toni Collette’s finest work in recent years (and that’s saying something!) and while she doesn’t quite have as much screen time as Firth, she owns it every second she’s on there.
Critics who ignored her stellar work in Hereditary, because of the usual dull genre snobbery, will hopefully wake up and smell the talent this time around.
However, ultimately, this is Firth’s star turn and he too does his finest work in yonks. Sympathetic but flawed, Michael is an intelligent, manipulative charming man with a certain enigmatic quality that makes him all the more compelling.
Firth seems to know exactly when to restrain himself and exactly when to lash out, and there’s a couple of scenes of explicit shenanigans where… well, let’s just say he never did some of this stuff with Bridget Jones!
The supporting cast do a lot with a little as well, with Sophie Turner and Juliette Binoche delivering subtle but memorable performances. Plus, Parker Posey cheerfully chews the scenery as prosecutor Freda Black.
Honestly, we’re defo going to be seeing a Parker Posey/Freda Black character on the next season of Drag Race!
The writing and direction are also superb, with the entire production occupying that slow burn prestige telly zone that HBO seems to excel at.
On the downside, the show does move at a very deliberate pace, which is critic talk for “slow”. Plus, if you’ve already watched the docu-series, you might find some of the information a little redundant, particularly when most episodes are 60 minutes and over.
Still, it’s impossible to deny just how utterly absorbing this show is. From the cast, to the writing, to the direction and, of course, the central mystery, The Staircase is a rich and compulsive drama based on a case that continues to fascinate over two decades later.
So, did Michael do it? Honestly, after watching four (of eight total) episodes, the answer is still unclear. We suspect that even after the finale the best you’ll be able to do is utter a weary “maybe”.
Because life’s like that. Unclear and complicated and endlessly confounding. Still, when you’re unable to sleep and staring up at the ceiling, at least you’ll know one thing is true: The Staircase is a pretty bloody good television show.
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