The Staircase (2022)
The French-produced documentary The Staircase took many years to tell its tale. The first eight episodes, detailing the trial of Michael Peterson for murdering his wife, aired in 2004. When new evidence came to light, the documentarians returned to the United States to cover the possibility of a retrial. A further three episodes were filmed five years later, documenting the conclusion of the judicial process. It is this final format, broadcast by Netflix, that most us would be acquainted with the series. A common thread throughout the 13 episodes is the conundrum "who is Michael Peterson?" It is a question the suspected murderer himself struggles with. So too does this dramatization.
Flashing back and forth between these installments, The Staircase soberly details the facts surrounding the case. Michael Peterson frantically calls 9-11 to report that his wife Kathleen is near death after falling down some stairs. By the time emergency services arrive she has died, but the state of her body and the amount of blood on the scene soon raise suspicions. Before long, Michael is arrested for her murder and the battle to prove his innocence begins.
Surprisingly, unlike the series that inspired it, this biopic takes a more ambiguous view of Michael’s culpability and even calls into question the documentarians’ objectivity. Benefitting from a finely nuanced performance by Colin Firth, The Staircase expands the timeline to before Kathleen’s death as well as depicting the intervening years between the documentary’s installments. Other theories are also canvassed, hinted at initially before being fully explored, with the infamous owl theory thankfully gets its due. Though these events are presented non sequentially, the series remains fairly grounded until the final episode when the shifting timeframes reaches its apogee.
One criticism of Michael’s defense team was that, as opposed to the prosecution, they were too forensic in their presentation of the facts and lacked passion. To an extent The Staircase suffers the same problem. Nevertheless, fine performances from a strong female cohort that includes Toni Collette, Juliette Binoche, Sophie Turner and Odessa Young, elevate this biopic above the standard police procedural. I still prefer the documentary though.
as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
as Denis Poncet
as Sophie Brunet
Sophie Brunet maintains that her correspondence with Michael Peterson began after she had finished editing the original eight episodes of 'The Staircase' documentary.
Michael Peterson did not hand a copy of Elizabeth Ratliff’s autopsy to his lawyer. David Rudolf obtained it when he visited Germany.
David Rudolf was not present during the grand jury hearing.
At times, the staging of scenes outside the courtroom differs from the documentary. Inside the courtroom the timeline is occasionally modified and testimony is attributed to different witnesses, particularly the German nanny.