After becoming an alcoholic, being put on probation at her law firm, divorcing her husband, and losing custody of her child, Cate McCall (Kate Beckinsale) is attempting to get her life back on the right track. In order to do so, she accepts a pro bono case — one which she believes she will lose. She also attends AA meetings and visits with a therapist. The titular “trials” in The Trials of Cate McCall involve all of these things. This is a courtroom drama but it’s also a film about this particular person and her struggles.
The case is the “wrongful” conviction of a woman named Lacey (Anna Anissimova), who claims she only pleaded guilty to murder to protect her at-the-time boyfriend. She was told the court system goes easier on a woman. Now, she wants out of her life sentence, and it’s Cate’s job to make that happen. But, like most good courtroom dramas, doubt creeps into both stories, and before you know it, Cate is attempting to figure out right from wrong, all while trying to stay on a sober path and win back her daughter’s love.
There’s a lot going on in The Trials of Cate McCall. She is a busy woman, and always has a lot going on. This ensures that the audience is never bored. The different storylines are interwoven well and we don’t feel like we’re jumping back and forth or around too much. The film doesn’t feel unfocused, is what I’m saying. Since each of these plot threads revolves around a single woman, the film maintains its scope and focus without too much trouble.
I’m always pleased when films dealing with specific subjects don’t require an audience member to be familiar with all the technical jargon. Do I know what a Habeas Petition is? No. But I understand how it functioned in this movie, because it took the time to explain to me what it is. It did not, however, hit me over the head with it, or any other legal terms. You know how most of this is going to go anyway, so adding in confusing words and phrases doesn’t help. There’s enough for the legal-heads in the crowd, but not too much to turn off the general audience member.
In fact, balance is the key word when it comes to much of The Trials of Cate McCall. It has a lot of overlapping storylines, but it manages to give them all enough time and never detract focus from the rest. It provides enough legal terminology, but not an overwhelming amount. It transitions well between being a straight genre and a smart thriller. It does exactly what its lead character has to do: find a perfect balance in every aspect of its existence.
If there’s a point at which The Trials of Cate McCall struggles, it’s in trying to find its own identity. It does very little to distinguish itself from many other courtroom dramas, save for the fact that it’s being led by a female. And when you look at the history of courtroom dramas, you’ll see that the lead is typically male. It’s the rare exception in which our protagonist is female. Is that enough to make the film feel different from its predecessors? Well, it doesn’t make a big difference, but it’s at least something to draw your attention.
It helps that Kate Beckinsale turns in one of the best performances of her career. She’s in her Nothing but the Truth mode, but more vulnerable and more flawed. She keeps us out of melodramatic territory by never looking for sympathy even with her problems. She is this film’s anchor, and it would become laughable without her turning in good work. It’s a reminder of the type of performance she can deliver if given the proper role and motivation.
Her primary supporting actor is Nick Nolte, here playing both a fellow lawyer and her AA sponsor. He’s here to provide some legal help and support for our struggling protagonist. Given Nolte’s own history, it’s a little difficult to separate the man from the character, but if you can do that he’s a stable backing to a solid lead. You won’t have previously heard of Anna Anissimova before this role — I imagine, at least — but you probably will afterward. She’s really good as both a victim and later … not so much a victim, and she could go on to do good things in the future.
While it doesn’t attempt to reinvent the formula, The Trials of Cate McCall is a pretty good entry into the courtroom drama genre. Its distinction is that it is lead by a woman — a rarity with these kinds of films — and that its focus is not exclusively on the legal stuff; there’s a real personal story here. The “trials” of the title refer to far more than the tribulations in the courtroom. It’s suspenseful, it’s dramatic, and it has a very strong lead performance from Kate Beckinsale. The Trials of Cate McCall is worth seeing.
Note: The Trials of Cate McCall premiers on the Lifetime Network on April 5, 2014. I’ve been informed that the Lifetime Network censors the content shown on it. This is a movie that would receive an R rating in the United States for profanity. Some of that profanity is necessary in order to truly experience the film. While I believe this is a film worth seeing, I would urge you to wait until it is released on DVD in your region, or to import it from Poland (or possibly other territories, but I know it’s out there), where it has already been released (if you have a region-free DVD player).