The Staircase Review: Colin Firth And Toni Collette Are Equally Strong In This Expansion Of The True Crime Saga

What happened to Kathleen Peterson? True crime aficionados, especially those who watched the docuseries "The Staircase," have their theories. Said theories can be distilled down into two primary choices: Kathleen's death was an accident caused by a fall, or Kathleen was murdered by her husband, Michael Peterson. (There's also another prominent theory that an owl killed Kathleen, and while that may sound ridiculous at first glance, it's not entirely outlandish when you start to look at some of the details.) 

In 2004, the Micahel and Kathleen Peterson story became the focus of "The Staircase," a French television miniseries directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. While it initially aired on French TV, "The Staircase" soon found international fame — fame that was only heightened when the docuseries found its way to Netflix, complete with three new follow-up episodes made just for the streaming service. With these additions, the entire thing clocked in at 13 episodes, which begs the question: is there anything left to say about this case at this point?

Apparently, yes. The HBO Max limited series "The Staircase" is best seen as an expansion of the docuseries. In fact, the folks involved with that series end up becoming characters here. Not only that, but this limited series takes a good, hard look at the creation of the documentary, and asks how objective it really was. We're also privy to behind-the-scenes moments that didn't appear in the doc, although directors Antonio Campos and Leigh Janiak also take great pains to recreate some of the documentary scenes as we remember them. This might all seem strange and confusing for those who haven't bothered to watch the documentary series, but not to the point of where you'd be completely lost. 

As "The Staircase" begins, Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) has called 9-1-1 not once, but twice. The first call was to say he found his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) bleeding but alive at the bottom of a staircase. During the second call, where Michael seems to be checking on how far away emergency services might be, he reveals that Kathleen is no longer breathing. Things get worse from there. The crime scene is shockingly bloody, and the police immediately cast doubts on Michael's "accidental fall" story, and soon, Michael finds himself on trial for murder.

An enduring mystery or an open and shut case?

"The Staircase" doesn't lay all its cards on the table right away. In fact, as the show begins, it strongly seems to suggest that Michael is innocent and that he's being unfairly targeted. However, as the story slowly unfolds, things — and opinions — change. The series moves back and forth in time, showing us various points of the story, including flashbacks to when Kathleen was still alive. The Petersons are an unusual family, with a large group of adult kids, some from different marriages, some adopted (played by a large ensemble that includes Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Patrick Schwarzenegger, and Dane DeHaan). The majority of the children believe Michael to be innocent, but Kathleen's biological daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) isn't so sure.

The ever-changing timeline can make for a muddled narrative, but "The Staircase" is aided by its strong, believable performances. The always-good Michael Stuhlbarg makes an impression as Michael's defense attorney, while Parker Posey goes big as a member of the prosecution. But Firth and Collette carry almost all of this endeavor on their shoulders, and they are more than up for the task. Firth in particular does a great job of making Michael seem like an enigma, while also nailing the real Peterson's distinct way of speaking. Since the real Michael is so well-documented by the documentary series, Firth had a lot to work with. Collette, on the other hand, has the trickier task of bringing Kathleen back to life. Freed from having to impersonate the real Kathleen, Collette makes the character her own and makes Kathleen almost as mysterious as Michael. 

As for the documentary crew covering the story, they're treated as outsiders looking in. Vincent Vermignon, as director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, keeps changing what he wants the documentary to be about as the story unfolds, while his producer looks on warily. And then there's Juliette Binoche, playing a character whose identity is treated like a bit of a twist. These elements of the series don't quite click as well as they should, although they do give viewers insight (albeit dramatized insight) into how the docuseries was made. 

Will "The Staircase" be the final say in the Peterson story? Probably not. And based on the five episodes made available for critics, the show isn't trying to give us a definitive answer, either — we're treated to numerous recreations as to what could've happened to Kathleen. But it's to the show's credit that it strives to remind us that Kathleen Peterson was a real person who died tragically; someone who deserves more than just to have her untimely death sensationalized over and over again. 

"The Staircase" premieres on HBO Max on May 5, 2022.