It’s always interesting when you find yourself disagreeing with other reviews. I used to observe a strict rule of not reading anyone else’s opinions on anything until I was sure I had finished writing or saying everything I was going to write or say, just to make sure I wasn’t influenced. But more recently, I’ve learned that expectations, backgrounds, and various other factors can make it hard to feel like a blank slate when it comes to a work of art. And sometimes seeing what someone else said clarifies my own thinking – sometimes because I think they’re right, and sometimes because I think they’re wrong. So while I don’t seek reviews of things I haven’t finished talking about yet, I don’t avoid them either.
I bring this up because I found myself looking forward to the well-reviewed HBO Max series. The staircase, created by Antonio Campos. (See the positive reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and vanity loungeeg.) It stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, the writer from Durham, North Carolina, who was convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen, and became the subject of a series popular 2004 documentary also called The staircase.
Many years after Peterson’s conviction, after a judge found some of the expert testimony in his trial to be false, Peterson was granted a new trial. Rather than try him again, the state allowed him to make an “Alford plea” – essentially a guilty plea where you claim your innocence but admit that the state has enough evidence to convict you. He received the sentence he had already served and was released. (Alford’s pleas were also the final resolution of the cases behind the lost paradise documentaries.)
For some time after its release, the original series of The staircase was hard to find for American audiences. But as the case continued to unravel, additional episodes were added in 2013 and 2018, and it all ended on Netflix. Especially with this added exposure, it is probably one of the most influential true crime works of the 21st century. He even inspired trial and erroran NBC parody series starring John Lithgow.
Maybe its ubiquity is why my initial reaction to hearing there had to be a scripted series, even one with a cast that includes Firth, Toni Collette (as Kathleen in the flashbacks), Michael Stuhlbarg (as the Michael’s attorney) and Parker Posey (as one of the ADs), was exhaustion. There are an awful lot of stories right now that are getting an exhaustive documentary treatment – in this case, more than a decade – that seems to have had to pull just about every interesting thread, until you wonder what may possibly stay.
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five episodes of The staircase, out of what will eventually be eight, were handed over to criticism. In these five episodes, the series does two interesting things to try to work around some of the limitations of these shows. The first is the danger of the duplication of the documentary, which it partly escapes by incorporating its production. Vincent Vermignon and Frank Feys play documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet, who hook up with Peterson to begin filming him and his crew shortly after his affair begins, and whose work eventually becomes critical to notoriety and possibly even the resolution of his case.
The other problem is specific to the case at hand here: there is no agreed conclusion to this story. Michael eventually pleaded guilty without admitting guilt, and despite his conviction there remains some debate as to whether he is actually guilty or not. This is particularly relevant to the flashbacks to Michael’s marriage to Kathleen, including an examination of the role his bisexuality played in their relationship. The prosecution claimed at trial that Kathleen discovered he was in contact with male sex workers and that this led to an argument in which Michael killed her; he claimed she knew about it and was not bothered.
The show (at least through five episodes) is adamant about not taking a position on whether or not Michael killed Kathleen. In fact, it will show you both a speculative scene where it was an accident and a speculative scene where it was a murder. It means trying to tell the story of a marriage honestly without committing to whether or not it ends in homicide. Firth and Collette are good actors for emotional nuance, but the ambiguity on this fundamental issue (and on the claimed motive), justified by the available evidence, forces them to act out scenes to make them plausible chapters of two completely different stories. different. As good as they are, that’s a lot to ask of actors, and it makes Kathleen feel half-developed, because you can’t tell how fully informed she is about her own relationship.
The most successful part of the series is the part that depends least on Michael’s guilt, namely his children’s shifting allegiances (the children, after all, don’t know for sure what happened either). The cast members involved in this story – including Sophie Turner and Odessa Young as young women whom Michael took in after the death of their mother, friend Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger as the sons Michael had before he and Kathleen do marry, and Olivia deJonge as Kathleen’s daughter – are very good.
But there’s a lot going on. This story about documentary filmmakers attempts to delve into their ethics and power struggles over recognition, control and credit. There is a story about how prison affects Michael between his sentencing and his release and how he gets on in the meantime. There is a whole story with Juliette Binoche which only begins in the fourth episode. And at the very end of this fifth episode, you learn that yes, they will cover the so-called “owl theory”, which posits that Kathleen neither fell (as Michael claimed) nor was murdered ( as claimed by the prosecution) but was attacked by an owl and died of his injuries.
The cinema itself is outstanding. The whole show is superb, and the editing (especially given the complicated structure) is quite brilliant: there’s a sequence in which an elevator door closes, and the editing alone tells the story of an entire family in about five seconds. The incorporation of footage edited to resemble similar scenes from the documentary is a technical marvel. they got the lighting and image to look like the grainy, cheap video feel of the real doc. This technique is used sparingly and to good effect, to serve as a reminder of how the now-famous moments (among true crime types) are part of a much larger picture.
There’s a lot to love about this series. Firth (with his generally British and stoic demeanor) is far more compelling than I expected as a restless Peterson. And who doesn’t love Juliette Binoche? But there was something about it that kept me at bay, because of the sheer turmoil – the trial, the wedding, the kids, the investigation, the shooting, everything whirling faster and faster – that seems to be Campos’ intention. It leaves me wondering if that feeling is fatigue, and therefore, if it’s about this series at all. If I hadn’t seen so many scripted docu-series, would I be so tired when I see an on-screen indication that we’re returning to The Happy Times before The Bad Thing happened? I do not know.
Just another entry in the great long list of unsolved mysteries.
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