In The Staircase, Colin Firth shines new light on a case we've been obsessed with for decades
The image of Kathleen Peterson’s sliced-open shaved head is imprinted in the minds of millions. The gruesome image is one of the first shocking pieces of evidence shown in The Staircase, the 2004 documentary series that is often credited with kickstarting the true crime boom that has gripped readers and viewers over the last two decades. Those injuries – raw, visceral, horrifying – are one of the many curiosities of Kathleen’s death: if she was attacked, no-one can explain why her skull wasn’t fractured and her brain unharmed. If she fell down the stairs, why did some lacerations indicate multiple blows in the same spot?
The confusion speaks to why the case is so absorbing: did she fall down the stairs? Or was she murdered? And was her husband, Michael Peterson, the culprit? We may never know the full truth.
It’s been 18 years since French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade first brought the Petersons to the attention of the world. A well-made, balanced courtroom drama, The Staircase revealed a man wracked with grief, yet strangely charismatic – a joker and a family man, accused of the worst crime imaginable. The very fact he had given a film crew almost unchecked access to himself, his lawyers and his children throughout the trial was surprising – and strange – in itself.
New information and strange twists have kept coming, and Lestrade has made various follow ups to his original work. In 2012, The Staircase II: Last Chance premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and six years later three new episodes landed on Netflix, documenting Michael’s final appeal. Michael became close with the filmmakers over the years, and as each new instalment of his story raked over evidence and peeled back the layers of his personality, doubt over whether he had a hand in his wife’s death grew. Viewers still can’t agree on his innocence, despite his conviction.
That we are still obsessed with the death of Kathleen Peterson comes down to the mastery of the storytelling it has inspired. The strange injuries inconsistent with both a beating and falling down the stairs; the discovery that an old family friend had died in similar circumstances the night the Petersons went over for dinner; the warring blended family taking sides over their father’s presumed guilt; the revelation that Michael was bisexual and collected pornographic images of soldiers on his computer; the endless appeals against the verdict and most curiously, the defence that an owl had attacked Kathleen after feathers had been found in her hair.
Lestrade isn’t the only filmmaker to explore Kathleen’s death. Many true crime series have dedicated time to the Petersons, including Dateline, Forensic Files, Cold Case and American Justice. There’s even a Silent Witness two-part episode “loosely based” on Kathleen’s death. It seems our appetite for the story hasn’t waned in the 21 years since Kathleen was found at the bottom of the stairs. Now, for the first time, the case has been dramatised in a new HBO Max series – showing in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now – The Staircase.
Created by Antonio Campos (The Devil All the Time), the show is brilliant, and an overarching look at the case from a distance Lestrade couldn’t achieve while the trial was ongoing. The film crew of the original Staircase become characters themselves, Lestrade played by Vincent Vermignon, affording a fascinating – if somewhat fictional – behind the scenes look at how the film that started it all was made.
HBO’s The Staircase is a keen examination of the American justice system, guilt vs innocence and the nature of true crime itself. Colin Firth – a likeable, seemingly honest bloke – is expertly cast as Michael, and asks viewers to question his every move while also being strangely magnetic. He offers more dimension than we’ve seen before – in The Staircase documentary, he was hyper aware of how he would come across; here we see him vulnerable, agitated, hopeful, scared. While underused, Toni Colette gives context to Kathleen, a woman known only as a body by many of those interested in the case, a collection of injuries and evidence presented in court.
With the benefit of time having passed, the series weaves multiple timelines together – happy times before Kathleen’s death, the trial and the years after Michael’s release – offering more context and, somehow, given how long the case has been examined, more surprises along the way. I had no idea that he fell in love with the editor of the original documentary, Sophie Brunet (played here by Juliette Binoche).
The core of the case of the Petersons comes down to Michael’s guilt or innocence. The law says he did play a part in his wife’s death, but that sliver of doubt casts an unignorable shadow over The Staircase. True crime can sometimes feel predatory – a way to dig up old pain for the sake of entertainment – but Michael’s trial and the subsequent series invites viewers to engage with the topic on a more introspective level. The best true crime stories – Making a Murderer, Serial, the many Amanda Knox documentaries – all offer that same level of analysis, forcing viewers to interrogate not only the grisly subject, but the sociopolitical factors that play into each case.
The Staircase’s central question encapsulates exactly what true crime fans love so much about the genre: “what if?”
The Staircase starts on Thursday 5 May at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. The first three episodes are streaming on Now, with new episodes arriving weekly.