‘The Staircase’ or how to bring a ‘true crime’ to fiction

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Colin Firth gives a masterful acting lesson by playing Michael Peterson, the American journalist and author accused of murdering his wife

Can a ‘true crime’ become a series? And above all: does it make sense? Apparently so. Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn showed it and most fascinating of all, the move went perfectly for them. It should be noted that the premise of the story was attractive enough to make the project happen, yet fiction struggled as it competed with the real-life images of such a case. Because ‘The Staircase’ deals with the strange case of Michael Peterson, a popular American writer and columnist, who was accused of murdering his wife on one of the steps of the huge mansion in which they lived.

The event wasn’t just the talk of Durham, the city in which Peterson had made his name by writing sour columns for the local newspaper ‘Herald Sun’, denouncing the corruption that existed in the city and especially the police – it came to launch his candidacy for mayor in 1999 – but instead became a documentary series owned by Frenchman Jean-Xavier de Lestrade who, with Peterson’s permission, introduced a camera throughout the process to record how the columnist prepared his defense and documented the trial and family life of the Petersons. The result was ‘The Staircase’ -yes, fiction hasn’t even changed its title-, a ‘true crime’ structured in thirteen chapters that came to light in 2004 and that Netflix, in the heat of the new series that has just arrived to HBO Max, has made sure to stand out on the cover now.

If in the documentary some aerial footage of the mansion and the voiceover of the news bulletins of the time that gave the news opened the piece, in the fiction it is a black screen and the call that Peterson made on that fateful December 9, 2001 Services. At around 2:40 a.m., the columnist, noticeably upset, called an ambulance after finding his second wife, Kathleen, unconscious and lying on the first three or four steps of one of the home’s steps and in the midst of a good bloodbath. current. He said he was still breathing. A few minutes later he called again for urgency, as he had stopped breathing and appeared to be dead.

The first aerial photos show the police cars approaching the scene, but the camera stops on another vehicle, the one carrying Todd, one of Peterson’s sons, back home after enjoying a pre-Christmas Eve with friends. The vantage point changes to the interior of the transport, as the lights of the police vehicles awaken a half-sleeping Todd. It’s a magnificent sequence shot, with the director showing viewers the chaos and confusion that reigns in a house already cordoned off by the police, with Kathleen’s body still on the stairs, stiff, and Peterson in the kitchen, in shock, until he finally understands what has happened and throws himself to hug his wife, crying inconsolably.

Numerous articles have been written about how lame the Spanish version of HBO Max is. At the beginning of this year, director Rodrigo Cortés demanded the platform to subtitle his film ‘Red Lights’. He wasn’t the first to complain. Many users are dissatisfied with the lack of subtitles and dubbing in Spanish in many of the titles on the platform, even in new content. And that’s what happened with ‘The Staircase’. The series is written in two languages: English and French. Well, to this day, and there are already six chapters, none of the French excerpts are subtitled in Spanish or dubbed and if you want to see them, you better understand French or understand the English subtitles. It is a pity.

Colin Firth is just huge and it was not easy to find the tone of such a peculiar type, a narcissistic impostor, without falling into imitation and ridicule. Toni Collette, as Kathleen, is also brilliant, bringing to life this successful executive, who clings to alcohol to lead a less idyllic existence than it seems. When the police declare the house a crime scene, a nightmare begins for Peterson and the family, who will not always be on the writer’s side. As the trial progresses, stories and secrets are revealed that the pair kept in a safe place and make for delightful plot twists.

Fiction and documentary series thus establish a kind of dialogue, almost referring to metalanguage. This is especially apparent when the beautiful photography of HBO Max’s work changes to the 4:3 format to reflect the material recorded by the police and also that of the documentary Jean-Xavier de Lestrade or when the importance of the documentary during the trip that occupies the case. The good thing about the series is that it merges at the authors’ convenience and detaches from the documentary. And in that sense, he can contribute things that the French director’s episodes have missed, such as the series showing a nice family dinner to celebrate Martha’s college graduation, or when he plays with points of view, staging how the prosecution believes the was murder and how the defense makes sure the incident happened. By the way, it is not cut with the images, and some can offend the most sensitive people. Disturbing and even terrifying is the blood trail on the stairs, which will remain visible in the house throughout the process.

The reader will see that I have tried to avoid giving much more information about the case, because it deserves to be surprised at every turn of events. Just one piece of advice: if you haven’t seen the documentary or series yet, pick one first, whatever it is, and when you’re done, skip straight to the other. You will see that both are fantastic.

‘The Staircase’, the series, is currently airing on HBO Max; ‘The Staircase’, the documentary series, can be seen on Netflix.

Source: La Verdad

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