Based on the 2005 Documentary of the Same Name, “The Staircase” excels until the final episode.
“The Staircase”, is based on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s. eight-part documentary series of the same name, which was shown on the Sundance Channel in 2005. Antonio Campos’ eight-part limited series for HBOMax, also focuses on the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband Michael Peterson for first-degree murder in 2002.
During Michael’s trial, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker de Lestrade was given unprecedented access to Michael, his family, and the courtroom. Campos, who directed Rebecca Hall to profound effect in the underrated and underseen “Christine,” now adds his vision to this extraordinarily complex story.
The Petersons lived what looked like an ideal existence in Durham, North Carolina. To other people, they seemed like the perfect family. And Campos has assembled a wonderful cast as:
Colin Firth (Michael Ratliff, a compulsive liar. He is an author and an occasional political candidate. He is constantly supported by his second wife, Kathleen).
Toni Collette (Kathleen Ratliff, Michael’s second wife. She is an executive at Nortel and the family’s breadwinner. This is also her second marriage. She dies after falling down a flight of stairs in the family home. Did she trip, or did Michael push her?).
Dane DeHaan (Clayton Ratliff, Michael’s older son from his first marriage. Clayton has had numerous run-ins with the law and spent time in prison. He is married with a baby on the way. He supports his father during the trial).
Patrick Schwarzenegger (Todd Ratliff, Michael’s younger son from his first marriage. He supports his father during the trial).
Sophie Turner (Margaret Ratliff, Michael’s older daughter, adopted by Michael and his first wife in Germany after Margaret’s parents – American ex-pats and the Ratliff’s best friends – both died. The father in South America of an illness, and the mother in Germany of what was deemed, at the time, a brain hemorrhage after she fell down a flight of stairs in a manner almost identical to Kathleen’s. The last person to see her alive was Michael! She supports her father during the trial).
Odessa Young (Martha Ratliff, Michael’s younger daughter and Margaret’s sister was adopted by Michael and his first wife in Germany. She is beginning to explore her queer identity. She supports her father during the trial).
Olivia DeJonge (Caitlin Ratliff, Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage. She initially supports her stepfather but then turns against him and sides with the prosecution during the trial).
Tim Guinee (Bill Peterson, Michael’s brother. He supports Michael during the trial).
Rosemarie DeWitt (Candace Hunt Zamperini, Kathleen’s sister. She sides with the prosecution during the trial).
Maria Dizzia (Lori Campbell, Kathleen, and Candace’s sister. She sides with the prosecution during the trial).
Trini Alvarado (Patricia Sue Peterson, Michael’s first wife and mother to Todd and Clayton. She supports her former husband during the trial).
In addition, Campos ups the meta by including Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (played by Vincent Vermignon) and the original documentary’s producer and fellow Oscar winner Denis Poncet (played by Frank Feys) as characters in the film. And, in a major coup, he gets Juliette Binoche to play Sophie Brunet, the documentary’s editor who fell in love with Michael while editing the film. She started a correspondence with him while he was in prison and was instrumental, together with the documentary, in getting his case reviewed, especially after it became known that a certain witness had falsified essential laboratory results in Michael’s and many other cases.
And finally, there are the legal teams:
Michael Stuhlbarg (David Rudolf, Michael’s senior attorney).
Justice Leak (Tom Maher, Michael’s junior attorney).
Cullen Moss (Jim Hardin, the prosecuting DA).
Parker Posey (Freda Black, assistant prosecuting DA).
Susan Pourfar (Dr. Deborah Radisch, the State Pathologist whose damning testimony sealed Michael’s conviction and the resulting sentence of life imprisonment – he did eight years before his release).
The result: compulsive viewing for seven out of the eight episodes. Colin Firth is spellbinding. He makes this slippery, selfish character who forgot how to tell the truth in infancy by turning likable and repulsive. For most of the series, as one surprise after another sprung on us, we vacillate between wanting him to be convicted and wanting him to be not guilty.
Toni Collette, although in a smaller role, is equally superb. You can pick out several of her scenes that are so memorable they go into your TV database for life. Kathleen is miserable. She knows that she is being used to supporting not only Michael but his four children as well. In addition, Michael is bisexual, and he spends a lot of time cruising the clandestine gay pickup spots of Durham. She has an inkling that he is screwing around. The feeling that he does not love her anymore. There are two scenes where her pain and her sorrow are conveyed with absolute precision. In one, we are at a party hosted, of course, by Kathleen. She is drinking a little too much, as always, and after talking with Michael and a few guests, goes silent for a few seconds and then jumps into the swimming pool. It catches you off-guard and is the perfect cri de coeur. On the other, she is hosting a political fundraiser for Michael and has invited an avant-garde dance group to perform. Campos cuts and moves his camera so that we are involved in the dance but are also privy to Colette’s face, which is tiring. It’s a magnificent scene. Then, in one hard-to-take episode, we witness Kathleen’s death not once but TWICE. At first, Michael is innocent, and she trips and falls by herself. In the second, Michael pushes her. You almost have to avert your gaze, but there is nothing gratuitous about it.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Stuhlbarg a standout as the uber defense attorney (a momentous year from him with his riveting performance as Richard Slacker in “Dopesick”), DeWitt as sister Candace, a fury of revenge, and Posey who makes every effort to impress as southern belle assistant DA Freda Black.
Only the final episode is a disappointment and should not have been added, I think. The trial is over, and we leave Durham behind and move to Paris, where Binoche’s Sophie Brunet becomes the central character. She is fine. More than fine. However, her discussions – arguments, really – with de Lestrade and Poncet are so off that they push the series down to another level. Poncet, especially, is very badly served. He is purely there as a sounding board for Brunet. It hurts us to hear an intelligent man talk this way. What must it have been like for him?