The Staircase is a prime-time, multi-part miniseries that dramatizes the events that transpired in the murder trial of Michael Peterson.
It’s always intriguing when you find yourself at odds with other critics. I used to observe a strict rule of not reading anybody differently’s opinions about anything until I was sure I was done jotting or saying everything I was going to write or say, just to make sure I was not told.
But more lately, I have learned that prospects and track records and a variety of other factors can make it hard to feel like a blank slate when it comes to a piece of art. And occasionally, seeing what someone differently has said clarifies my own thinking — occasionally because I suppose they are right, and occasionally because I suppose they are wrong. So while I do not seek out reviews of effects I am not finished talking about yet, I do not avoid them moreover.
I bring this up because I plant myself intolerant with the well- reviewed HBO Max series The Staircase, created by Antonio Campos. ( See the positive reviews in The Hollywood Journalist and Vanity Fair, for case.) It stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, the Durham, NC pen who was condemned of the murder of his woman, Kathleen, and came the subject of a popular 2004 talkie series also called The Staircase.
Numerous times after Peterson’s conviction, after a judge concluded that some of the expert evidence in his trial was false, Peterson was granted a new trial. Rather than try him again, the state allowed him to make an”Alford plea”— basically a shamefaced plea where you maintain your innocence but admit the state has enough substantiation to condemn you. He was doomed to the time he’d formerly served and was released.
(Alford pleas were also the final resolution of the cases behind the Paradise Lost pictures.)
For a while after its release, the original series of The Staircase was hard to find forU.S. cult. But as the case continued to twist, fresh occurrences were added in 2013 and 2018, and the whole thing wound up on Netflix. Particularly with that added exposure, it’s presumably one of the most influential true- crime workshop of the 21st century. It indeed inspired Trial & Error, an NBC parody series starring John Lithgow.
Maybe its ubiquity is why my original response to hail that there was to be a scripted series, indeed one with a cast that includes Firth, Toni Collette (as Kathleen in flashbacks), Michael Stuhlbarg (as Michael’s counsel) and Parker Posey (as one of the DAs), was prostration. There are an awful lot of stories right now that admit some total talkie treatment – in this case, further than a decade of it – that seems like it has to have pulled just about every intriguing thread, until you wonder what can conceivably be left.
Five occurrences of The Staircase, out of what will ultimately be eight, were given to critics. In those five occurrences, the show does two intriguing effects to try to get around some of the limitations of these shows. The first is the peril of duplicating the talkie, which it escapes in part by incorporating its timber.
Vincent Vermignon and Frank Feys play the talkie director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and patron Denis Poncet, who connect with Peterson to begin rephotographing him and his platoon shortly after his case begins, and whose work eventually becomes critical to the notoriety and perhaps indeed the resolution of his case.
The other problem is specific to the case at hand then that there is not an agreed-upon conclusion to this story. Michael eventually contended shamefaced without admitting guilt, and despite his conviction, there remains some debate about whether he’s actually shamefaced or not. This is particularly applicable to flashbacks to Michael’s marriage to Kathleen, including an examination of what part his bisexuality played in their relationship. The execution claimed at trial that Kathleen discovered he was in contact with manly coitus workers and that this led to an argument during which Michael killed her; he claimed she knew about it and was not bothered.
The series (at least through five occurrences) is bent about not taking a position about whether Michael killed Kathleen or not. In fact, it’ll show you both a academic scene where it was an accident and a academic scene where it was murder. This means trying to actually tell the story of a marriage without committing to whether it does or doesn’t end in a homicide.
Firth and Collette are blessed actors when it comes to emotional nuance, but nebulosity about this abecedarian question (and about the claimed motive), justified by the available substantiation as it may be, requires them to play scenes so as to make them presumptive chapters in two hectically different stories. As good as they are, it’s an awful lot to ask of actors, and it makes Kathleen feel partial- developed, since you can not know to what degree she’s completely informed about her own relationship.
The most successful part of the series is the part that turns the least on whether Michael is in fact shamefaced, which is the shifting faithfulness of his kiddies (the kiddies, after all, do not know for sure what happed either). The members of the cast involved in this story — including Sophie Turner and Odessa Young as the youthful women Michael took in after the death of their mama, a friend, Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger as the sons Michael had before he and Kathleen married, and Olivia deJonge as the son Kathleen had — are veritably good.
But there is an awful lot going on. That story about the documentarians tries to claw into their ethics and their power squabbles over recognition and control and credit. There is a story about how captivity affects Michael between his conviction and his release and how he gets by in the meantime. There is a whole story featuring Juliette Binoche that does not kick in until the fourth occasion. And at the very end of that fifth occasion, you learn that yes, they’ll be covering the so- called”owl proposition,”which posits that Kathleen neither fell (as Michael claimed) nor was boggled (as the execution claimed) but was attacked by an owl and failed from her injuries.
The moviemaking itself is exceptional. The whole show looks great, and the editing ( particularly given the complicated structure) is relatively 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 weaving in of footage that is been altered to look like analogous scenes from the talkie is a specialized phenomenon; they have gotten the lighting and the picture to look just like the coarse, cheap- videotape sense of the real croaker. That fashion is used sparingly and wisely, as a memorial of how moments that are now notorious (among true crime types) are part of a much larger picture.
There is a lot to like about this series. Firth (with his generally British and stoic air) is much more satisfying than I anticipated as the fidgety Peterson. And who does not like Juliette Binoche? But there was commodity about this that held me at a distance, because of the veritably restlessness — the trial, the marriage, the kiddies, the disquisition, the moviemaking, all swirling briskly and briskly — that seems to be Campos’s intent.
It leaves me wondering whether this feeling is fatigue, and therefore, whether it’s about this series atall.However, would I be as sick when I see an on- screen suggestion that we’re flashing back to The Happy Times before The Bad Thing happed? I do not know, If I had not seen so numerous talkie-to-scripted series.