D: Karen Moncrieff / 89m
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, James Cromwell, Mark Pellegrino, Anna Anissimova, Taye Diggs, Kathy Baker, Clancy Brown, Brendan Sexton III, David Lyons, Ava Kolker, Isaiah Washington, Dale Dickey, Amanda Aday
Cate McCall (Beckinsale) has her fair share of problems. Despite being a talented lawyer, she has a serious drink problem that has resulted in her being put on probation and assigned to work in a small law office. She’s also trying to retain custody of her daughter Augie (Kolker) following the break up of her marriage to Josh (Lyons). As she fights to regain control of her life, Cate is assigned an appeal case involving Lacey Stubbs (Anissimova). Lacey has been convicted of murder, but claims she was set up by the lead detective on the case, Welch (Pellegrino). She also alleges that, while in prison, she was raped by a guard.
With the help of her mentor, Bridges (Nolte), Cate begins to look into the case and finds quickly that some of the witness testimonies don’t match up, and that there are problems with the police evidence. Lacey maintains her innocence, while Welch proves evasive and aggressive when Cate talks to him. As Cate begins to suspect a miscarriage of justice has taken place, the pressure of trying to deal with both the case and spending time with Augie begins to affect her ability to maintain her sobriety.
The appeal hearing sees Lacey’s case upheld, but Cate’s success is short-lived. No sooner is the hearing over than she begins to uncover further evidence that Lacey has been lying all along. But can she trust this new evidence? Now Cate has to find out whether or not she was used by Lacey, and in the process, decide if being a part of Augie’s life is appropriate for her daughter while she still has a drink problem.
From the outset, The Trials of Cate McCall tries hard to be different from all the other courtroom-based dramas out there, and in terms of its title character, it certainly succeeds. Cate McCall is, frankly, a bit of a mess, and while the reason for her drinking problem is adequately explained, the movie’s determination to make things difficult for her at almost every turn borders on the sadistic. It’s only within the confines of the courtroom that she’s allowed to hold it together and have any success; outside, and she makes mistake after mistake, sometimes deliberately. There is an element of masochism as well in these moments, as if Cate is punishing herself, and while on a psychological level this is all completely understandable, it makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience. It’s not long into the movie before the viewer will be wondering, just how much more can this character take before she puts her head in the oven?
But Cate’s work keeps her going, even while she screws up everything else in her life. The two worlds she inhabits, her professional and private lives, are addressed with equal gravitas, and thanks to Beckinsale’s committed, earnest portrayal, the movie is on solid ground when Cate tries to deal with the responsibilities of both (even if she fails more often than not). It’s an unselfish performance from Beckinsale, an actress who can do a lot more than wear tight-fitting black leather and make fangs look sexy, and she’s at her best when the script piles on the setbacks (she even ends up in jail at one point, that’s how bad things get for her). Beckinsale is also clever enough to ensure that Cate isn’t entirely sympathetic, and this helps make the character more credible.
She’s ably supported by the likes of Nolte (grizzled, understanding), Cromwell (sanguine, duplicitous), Anissimova (nervy, put-upon), and Pellegrino (arrogant, shady), and there’s a winning performance from six year old Kolker as Cate’s troubled daughter (Augie though – really?). With such a good cast – and one that can find room for actors such as Brown and Baker in minor roles – the movie’s mix of domestic drama and courtroom machinations is handled well by writer/director Moncrieff, even if there are moments where plausibility is stretched so thin it’s practically see-through (the prosecution’s withholding of exculpatory evidence is a case in point; the ease with which Cate and Welch bury their differences is another).
But all in all, the movie is a worthwhile watch though it plays flat through certain stretches – the repetitive bickering between Cate and Josh, the subplot involving Cromwell’s lecherous judge – and the issue of Lacey’s guilt can be guessed from the beginning, but away from the courtroom there’s enough to keep an audience engaged and wanting to find out what happens next. Ultimately though, and aside from the reliability of its cast, the material isn’t solid enough to withstand close scrutiny (or cross-examination), and while it’s entirely respectable in its aims and intentions, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Rating: 6/10 – with alcoholism, murder and a custody battle occupying the time of its main character, The Trials of Cate McCall is actually less intriguing than it thinks it is; Beckinsale is the movie’s major asset, and while there’s nothing to suggest this might be the beginning of a series, another visit with Cate could still be something to look forward to.