The Staircase review – Toni Collette and Colin Firth are brilliant in true crime drama

You could be forgiven for thinking there are too many shows right now based on a podcast or a documentary – or both. And you would be forgiven, because you would be absolutely right. 2022 is at the moment the year of the “inspired by,” and not just true stories – but the dramatisation of things that have already been well documented in television or audio form.

At the good end of this trend are shows like Hulu’s The Dropout which tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos (a story that was originally told in a podcast of the same name) and WeCrashed, an Apple TV+ production starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway about the foundations of WeWork (also based on, you guessed it a podcast). At the other end of the scale is the dramatisation of the events of Tiger King that we saw in Joe Vs Carole, which didn’t quite have the same feel.

In The Staircase, we have the bold move to turn a very well known case, and a very well-respected documentary into a drama.  And the good news is, it worked.

This drama pivots on one night in North Carolina in 2001 when Michael Peterson, a crime writer and aspiring politician, calls the emergency services and reports that his wife has fallen down the stairs and she isn’t breathing. When emergency services arrive they find an incredibly bloody scene around his wife Kathleen Peterson and she is dead.

But what happened to Kathleen that night, and what was the involvement of Michael. That’s the question that we are immediately posed with as the drama kicks off.

The will be familiar to those who have seen Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s award-winning 2004 documentary about the trial of Michael Peterson. The show was later updated and added to the Netflix library giving it a huge global audience, making this case one that many know a little if not a lot about. But don’t let any familiarity put you off watching this drama, because whether you know the story or not, there is a lot to like about this HBO production.

At the heart of the story is the court case around Michael Peterson, played with quiet brilliance by Colin Firth, and the relationship he had with his wife Kathleen, played in an equally excellent manner by the wonderfully talented Toni Collette. As a viewer we are treated to multiple timelines in the lives of the Petersons, from what appears to be them living the American dream surrounded by their doting family at the beginning of the drama to increasingly strained and then fractured relationships as the story continues.

And it is on these dynamics that this drama really comes alive, not just with Firth and Collette giving us an acting masterclass, but standout contributions from the younger members of the cast who play their children. It’s worth reserving special praise for the performances of Olivia DeJonge who plays Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage, Patrick Schwarzenegger who plays Michael’s son from his first marriage and Sophie Turner who portrays Margaret Ratliff, Michael’s adopted daughter after the death of her biological parents.

As an HBO production, you get what you hope for from this gripping drama; gloss and high production values, nail-biting storytelling and a pacing that does justice to the script.

For those who haven’t seen the documentary and aren’t aware of the case, I’ll say no more about what happens in the show. But be warned, this is quite the rollercoaster.

The Staircase is available to watch on HBO Max in the US and Sky and NOW in the UK

Tim Glanfield

Tim Glanfield is a journalist, editor and broadcaster with more than 15 years experience writing about television, film and the entertainment business. He has been editor of RadioTimes.com, a writer for The Times (of London) and the Guardian as well as a freelance contributor to newspapers, magazines and websites across the world. He is author of the book Digital Economy or Bust: The Story of a New Media Startup and makes regular appearances on TV and radio in the UK.

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