Antonio Campos makes a compelling True-Crime drama starring Colin Firth, Toni Collette and more

On December 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 in a state of absolute panic. He reported that he had just found his wife Kathleen at the bottom of their stairs in their home in North Carolina, and the scene was awful. Kathleen Peterson was pronounced dead at the scene and authorities immediately became skeptical of Michael’s story that his wife must have fallen after mixing Valium and alcohol. As the investigation progressed, Michael Peterson’s secret life was subjected to public scrutiny, as did an astonishing coincidence with another woman’s death and some truly unusual case details. A French film crew would follow Peterson’s case right after the indictment and for more than the next decade and produce an amazing, basic documentary series about real crime called “The staircase” (which can be streamed on Netflix.)

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Now, HBO Max has a prestige miniseries of the same name, a passion project for director Anthony Fields (“The devil all the time “), who has been working on it for years. Although the story is a bit overly familiar to anyone with even a distant interest in true crime – this case has been unpacked on pretty much every related podcast and cable series since the words “true crime” had any meaning – this is a very god-done drama, a show that procedurally examines the impact of a lawsuit as it acts as a whodunit for a case without easy answers. It is about the invasion of privacy through investigations, TV interviews, public sentencing and the general invasiveness of preparing the trial for anyone who has to go through the grieving process. Campos and the company make some structural mistakes in the writing, but the performance, craftsmanship, and the overall fascinating character of this story keep it on the upward trajectory.

“Even when I know he’s telling the truth, it may sound like a lie,” says the fictional version of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), the director of the original “The Staircase” seen here because it was so much that the documentaries became part of this story. He is right. There’s something about Michael Peterson that feels unbelievable, even if there is no evidence, and Colin Firth nails the uncertain edge, the feeling that we should not trust this guy, even though we have not yet seen the evidence to prove it, all the way down to his crooked accent. He does not lean too far in either direction. Smaller actors would have overplayed the potentially sinister aspects of the character or gone the other way and leaned into the “misjudged” melodrama. He is very good. (Although it would have been fascinating to see it once attached Harrison Ford in the role). There is something disturbing about a guy who admitted to having lied about having a purple heart for an injury in Vietnam when he ran for mayor. What else has he lied about? Did Kathleen know about his sexual inclinations? No one else knew, and her daughters do not believe mother did either. Can Michael lie about everything?

The theory of the state is that Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) found out about her husband’s bisexuality – another thing he is not aware of when he first claims it was only curiosity but later alleged to have included actual infidelity – and a fight ensued that led to her death at the end of a fireplace tool. While the family first stands behind Michael, they also begin to break down in doubt. Michael’s adopted daughters of a mother who also happened to have fallen down the stairs, Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), and his sons from a previous marriage, Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton Peterson (Danish DeHaan), stand behind their father. But his sister-in-law Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) and stepdaughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) eventually split, especially after seeing the autopsy images. Cullen Moss and Parker Posey play the accusations that go after Peterson; Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Peterson’s no-nonsense lawyer. Finally, Juliette Binoche appears in a role that should not really be spoiled, but she is typically phenomenal.

All of this A-list ensemble is working to remove the images of the actual involved individuals that crime junkies know so well. It’s surprising how quickly the real Peterson and his family fall away, displaced by these recreations. They are all excellent, especially Firth, Stuhlbarg, DeJonge and Binoche. The only thing that really holds them back is the chronological gamemanship that has become so prevalent in modern miniseries, though it’s starting to fall away a bit after the first few episodes, and the show is getting stronger for it. Yes, some things about this story are better served if they do not unfold in sequence, but the first few episodes feel almost arbitrarily structured, not as if a flashback nurtures something thematic that happened later, as much as confusion just for the sake of . of being artistic.

There is also a nagging feeling that some of “The Staircase” is taking too long in this form, though the true story certainly has enough meat on its bones (the documentary series is even longer collected than this 8-hour bet), and it slow pace allows for Campos’ weirdness to bleed through, like when he plays “I Can’t Stop Loving You” into a funeral scene or lets the versions of the crime unfold in some of the most disturbing real-time sequences of bloody death ever been seen on television. It’s a literal horror movie. And it is telling that he leaves the director’s reins to the horror filmmaker Leigh Janiak (“Fear Street”) in two chapters – this is not for the faint of heart. Although it is admirable that Campos and the company take Kathleen’s death seriously. Whether it was an accident or a murder, her death was brutal, and it makes history a disservice to see the other way around.

“It’s a love story set in the South, where nothing is what it seems,” says the French filmmaker who wanted to make “The Staircase” a true crime story. He’s not lying. This is a case where all the pieces do not fit, no matter what version you believe in, what happened that night. It is about different versions of justice, public judgment, betrayal and family fidelity. This story really has it all, and Campos clearly understands it all. His obsession with the cause pays off as he transforms it into high drama and high art. [A-]

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