“The Trials of Cate McCall does not offer too much in the way of new ideas or characters, but it is still refreshing to see a complex and commanding female lead who truly does own the film.”
Recently sober lawyer Cate McCall is on a mission. Her five-year-old daughter is currently living with Cate’s ex, and her career took a massive hit from her substance abuse. So in order to turn her life around, and to once again be a part of her daughter’s life, she takes on a pro bono case. It is clear that while the film is a legal drama, Cate McCall’s trials extend well beyond the courtroom.
Lacey Stubbs was accused of murder, but filed a Habeas Petition in an attempt to free herself and clear her name of a murder she denies culpability in. Cate has no time for mincing words, so she tells Lacey that her case is no longer a matter of innocence or guilt. What Cate does need to prove is that the state court made a legal or factual error in the conviction. Nevertheless, Lacey recounts the details of the night of Jen’s murder, and in doing so implicates Rusty, an alleged rapist of both Jen and Lacey.
As Cate searches for the truth in Lacey’s case, she is constantly distracted from her personal battles, and she continues to break promises to her own daughter, Augie. While the trial creates more problems in her personal life, she continues to pursue leads and piece together the mystery, knowing that a win in this trial could ultimately bring her shared custody of Augie and redemption for her troubled past. Her tenacity eventually brings her to a more hopeful point, but another obstacle soon stands in her way. As she is poised to begin feeling good about her life and her purpose, she is visited by Mr. Boothe, the father of Lacey’s friend, Dorrie. Dorrie is also serving time for the murder of Jen, and her father believes that Cate is her only chance for freedom.
Kate Beckinsale’s performance as Cate McCall is one of the strongest parts of the film. Beckinsale never allows the film to become too melodramatic. She is a victim of her own addiction, and she never searches for sympathy. It is clear that her only goal after sobriety is to be a part of Augie’s life again, and her lowest moments come when she fears that she has failed as a mother. As a lawyer, Cate is strong and smart. She faces constant deceit, but she never breaks down or seems frail. While she does sometimes find her emotions overtake her, they are always connected to her custody battle, and she is clearly more comfortable crying in a private therapy session than she is in a room full of people like during an AA meeting.
While Beckinsale carries the lead role, it seems that sometimes too much of the film is on her shoulders, detracting from the potential to get a better feeling for any character but Cate. The film features a number of known actors, but Nick Nolte’s performance as Bridges is probably the closest thing to a leading co-star that there is. Essentially, the rest of the cast is a supporting ensemble, which in many films does work, but in this film, it seems that the development of some characters was lacking. Lacey and her family were potentially fascinating characters who likely had deep backstories, but the film didn’t focus on any of them enough to make them more than side characters. This action was particularly frustrating in the case of Lacey, since her trial is the center of the film. Had Trials focused more on the actual trial, and used Cate’s maternal motivations as a secondary story, the film would likely have had the time to flesh out some of the supporting characters.
Still, Cate McCall is a fully realized character. The film could easily have been about too much, juggling Lacey’s trial, Dorrie’s case, Cate’s substance abuse, and her subsequent custody battle, but the film never felt too heavy with subplot. In fact, even part of Cate’s past was explored, as a case and a fling from years before both resurface. Even though the film never felt flooded with exposition, the placement of the stories was often jarring. Rather than successfully cutting back and forth between issues, there were times when it seemed like only one plot was covered, before switching over to a lengthy focus on a different story, but the film ultimately found its stride and the plot points were eventually integrated successfully.
The Trials of Cate McCall does not offer too much in the way of new ideas or characters, but it is still refreshing to see a complex and commanding female lead who truly does own the film. And while not every supporting character received as much attention as needed, the performances saved many of the potentially flat characters. The film will not disappoint fans of courtroom dramas or series.
Review by Entertainment Writer and Film Critic, Bethany Rose