The dramatisation of the documentary of the death of Kathleen Peterson – Accident or Murder?
Michael Peterson is a complex person. A Vietnam veteran who could boast receiving a silver star, a bronze star and two Purple Hearts while going on to become a novelist and newspaper columnist. He also adopted, along with his first wife, the orphaned daughters of close friends and then ran for Mayor of his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Wealthy, now in his second marriage to Kathleen Peterson, with an extended and mixed family and seemingly living the American Dream, his life seemed ordered and wonderful. And then, on December 9th 2001 he telephoned the emergency services to report that he’d found Kathleen at the bottom of the stairs covered in blood and she’d stopped breathing. Kathleen died and the police charged Michael Peterson with her murder.
What would have made for only local interest exploded on the world when French documentary maker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade heard about the case and approached Peterson, who decided having his side filmed could only help him. The ensuing 2004 series, also called The Staircase, revealed Peterson’s extremely colourful, somewhat seedy personal life and the American justice system in all of its venomous and deleterious horror. Was Peterson guilty? Even after all this time, only Peterson really knows.
Dramatising real life events already forensically documented seems on paper to be superfluous. But what this version can do is show the documentary team at work, and that makes for a fascinating angle. Peterson is revealed to be a liar (he’d purchased the Purple Hearts) and actively bisexual, a secret hidden from everybody (possibly including his late wife). An array of characters, especially DA Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and assistant prosecutor Freda Black, are clichéd pantomime performers. Indeed, Parker Posey’s superb portrayal of Black is toned down; the actual Black would be too absurd.
Colin Firth is as good as you expect as the multifaceted Peterson, flitting between manipulating his family so he looks good to overwhelming emotion. Toni Collette has perhaps the harder role as Kathleen, multiple flashback scenes giving the woman at the centre of everything valuable character that could only be hinted at and told in the third person in the documentary. The children (played assuredly across the board by Sophie Turner, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger and others), arguably victims as much as their mother, are also afforded time to show how the tragedy and ensulting madness utterly destroyed a once strong family. Only David Rudolph (Michael Stuhlbarg), Perterson’s skillful and doughty attorney, is given disservice. Unflappable, unshowy and professional at all times, here he’s portrayed as something else entirely.
The original documentary was at times painful, the act of seeing into the most personal aspects of these people feeling somewhat tawdry. But Peterson did invite the documentary makers in. This does feel a little different, a bit grubbier. The death of an individual and the fallout as entertainment. But like the original, you can’t stop watching. Even if you’ve seen the documentary multiple times (some of us may be guilty) and the thought of a dramatisation feels redundant, fear not; there’s much more to take in here. For those who haven’t, keep watching. Think this is all ridiculous already? Just wait!