‘The Staircase’: Colin Firth breaks bad as a real-life liar, cheater and possibly killer

In this well-written HBO Max series, the good-guy actor expertly plays a duplicitous man whose discovery of his wife’s body casts suspicion on him and divides his family.

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“The Staircase” flashes back to the seemingly idyllic marriage of Michael (Colin Firth) and Kathleen (Toni Collette).

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Over two weeks, we have THREE limited series based on true stories and focused on a shocking death in American suburbia: last week’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” (from FX on Hulu), Hulu’s upcoming “Candy”—and this week’s HBO Max drama series “The Staircase.” Based on an acclaimed documentary series from 2002, “The Staircase” stars Academy Award winner Colin Firth as novelist Michael Peterson, who was charged with the murder of his wife, Kathleen, played by the invaluable Toni Collette.

This just a few weeks after the NBC crime drama “The Thing About Pam,” which was also about … a shocking murder in American suburbia. There’s a trend here, and it’s indicative of our collective obsession with all things true crime, whether in book, podcast, feature film, documentary or limited series form. While the material is decidedly lurid and usually follows the same time-hopping path where we start with the murder and work our way back, these series have been universally addictive, thanks to the first-rate production values, appropriately melodramatic dialogue and some of our best actors leaning into their roles and relishing the chance to don period-piece wardrobes and wigs (in most cases) and lose themselves in some complex and troubled characters.

With Firth expertly turning his likable leading-man persona upside down in creating a character who seems to be the perfect husband, father and friend but is in reality a duplicitous narcissist who manipulates the truth to his own benefit, “The Staircase” is a fascinating deep dive into the mindset of an egomaniac who always thought he was the smartest person in the room but was finally brought down by his demons. (Like the brilliant documentary series, “The Staircase” adheres to the legal findings of the labyrinthine case but doesn’t offer definitive proof of Michael’s guilt or innocence—though I believe most viewers will reach a certain conclusion.)

‘The Staircase’

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An eight-episode series premiering with three episodes Thursday on HBO Max. A new episode will debut each Thursday through June 9.

On the night of Dec. 9, 2001, a hysterical Michael Peterson called 911 and claimed he had just come inside from the backyard and had found his wife Kathleen at the foot of the staircase, gravely injured and clinging to life. When police arrived on the scene, they found a sobbing Michael in the kitchen—and Kathleen’s blood-soaked body crumpled at the bottom of the staircase. Numerous lacerations and bruises were found on Kathleen’s body, leading to charges of murder against Michael, much to the shock of his extended family. In flashback sequences, we gain some fascinating insights into the seemingly idyllic but complex and uneasy dynamic between Michael and Kathleen, and their five children.

This is a well-written drama with clearly defined characters, but it still took me a couple of episodes to figure out everyone’s place on the complicated family tree. Patrick Schwarzenegger is Todd and Dane DeHaan is Clayton, who are Michael’s sons from a previous marriage; Sophie Turner is Margaret and Odessa Young is Martha, who were adopted by Michael after the death of their biological mother, and Olivia DeJonge is Caitlin, who is Kathleen’s biological daughter from a previous marriage.

It’s a very Brady family, and though the siblings are all close and Michael and Kathleen have a special-occasion ritual in which everyone takes a chalice and makes a toast to a family member, we can see in ways subtle and not so subtle there are some loyalties among the siblings that go deeper than others. These potential splinters crack wide open when Michael is charged with the murder, with four of the children initially and passionately defending their father, while Caitlin splits from the group as she sides with her Aunt Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt), who never trusted Michael and is convinced he killed Kathleen.

Motives, you ask? Michael was struggling financially and there was a $1.5 million life insurance in Kathleen’s name, AND he had a secret double life in which he hooked up with numerous men through the years. The district attorney’s theory is that Kathleen discovered evidence of Michael’s affairs and confronted him, and things turned heated and then violent, with Michael using a fireplace tool known as a blow poke as a weapon.

Michael Stuhlbarg turns in scene-stealing work as the high-priced defense attorney David Rudolf, while Vincent Vermignon and Frank Feys play the real-life director and producer of the documentary, which allows for some meta opportunities. (The cameras are often rolling during pivotal reveals in the story, as when it is discovered there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Michael’s previous wife, and Rudolf explodes: You found ANOTHER woman at the bottom of the stairs?)

Firth turns in some of the finest work of his brilliant career as Michael, who pictures himself at the height of sophistication with his literary career and his ever-present pipe and is always quick to offer a rationalization or an excuse, whether he’s shrugging off exposed lies about his military service, claiming Kathleen knew and approved of his multiple dalliances with men or expressing righteous indignation that anyone could possibly even think he would harm the great love of his life. Toni Collette gives Kathleen a voice through the flashback sequences, and the young actors playing their children are all excellent. “The Staircase” keeps us in its grips throughout.

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