By Stephen Aspeling14 September 2023
Lawyer up with 5 hard-hitting legal dramas
Legal issues come down to facts but are often obscured by emotion. This is what makes the courtroom ripe for outrageous comedy and suspenseful drama as attorneys wage war on the truth. Often set before a jury, theatrics come into play as lawyers present a version of events, using emotion and powerful arguments to exact maximum penalties or get their client off the hook.
This see-sawing battleground is what makes legal dramas so juicy, given an added dose of flavour through historical or political context. Playing devil’s advocate, overcoming prejudice, leaning into hypocrisy and fighting the good fight with good intentions, these movies and series find a host of compelling characters doing what they do best, whether navigating courtroom antics, office politics or wardrobe choices.
The original Perry Mason show of the 1950s serves as the template for almost every courtroom drama you’ve ever seen. Played by Raymond Burr, the legendary lawyer’s immense influence continues to echo more than 50 years later as a complicated but decent lawyer confronts and ties up a case in every episode. While classic, this formula hasn’t been repeated in the dark and gritty reboot of Perry Mason starring Matthew Rhys.
Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, Perry Mason covers the brutal kidnapping of a baby over the course of the first season, moving from the role of detective to defence attorney. In the second season, Della helps Mason keep the law firm going by way of civil cases as a corrupt businessman attempts to exert his nefarious influence over Los Angeles.
Brooding and complex, this atmospheric legal drama is artful and thoughtful in execution. A blend of Zach Braff and Edward Norton, Rhys navigates the intricacies of the war vet turned private dick, playing opposite a solid ensemble spearheaded by Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk. The 1930s are brought to life by authentic production design, wardrobe and hairstyling. Not shying away from the harsh realities of the time, Perry Mason captures the mood with slice-of-life accuracy.
Before Margot Robbie painted Hollywood pink as Barbie, there was another blonde who wielded the subversive power of all things pink. While the name “Elle Woods” may not ring a bell, it’s sure to set off a few fire alarms if you watch Legally Blonde. Starring Reese Witherspoon, this feel-good comedy from the turn of the millennium tracks the fish-out-of-water adventures of a popular sorority girl turned legal eagle at Harvard Law School.
Charming, witty and funny, Elle strives to win her man back as she encounters discrimination and prejudice usually reserved for simply being blonde. A prelude to her Oscar-winning performance in Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon is adorable and magnetic, supported by a stellar yet sweet cast in Luke Wilson, Victor Garber, Selma Blair and Jennifer Coolidge. An entertaining, fun and heartwarming romantic comedy with a heart of gold, this thought-provoking “girl-power” movie challenges stereotypes with an intelligent, determined and empowered role model at its core.
Suits is a legal drama from Aaron Korsh about a college dropout who lands a job as an associate at New York City law firm, Pearson Hardman. Typically referring to high-ranking executives, Suits takes a page from Boston Legal’s stylish visuals, witty banter, zippy dialogue, unconventional legal practice and central mentor-apprentice relationship. Instead of the father-son type bromance between Alan Shore and Denny Crane, the focus is on Mike Ross who tries to hide his qualifications as Harvey Specter, one of New York’s best lawyers, takes him under his wing.
Patrick J Adams and Gabriel Macht’s sparkling on-screen chemistry compels the legal series, with support from Meghan Markle, Gina Torres and Rick Hoffman. Enjoying good rapport, the co-leads thrive on great writing that elegantly intertwines suspenseful legal drama with engaging personal stories. Suits is clinical in its approach, visually striking thanks to its sharp wardrobe, handsome cast and polished script. A twinkle in the eye when it comes to humour, there’s rarely a dull moment in this entertaining, provocative and slick legal series.
Based on actual events, Shepherds & Butchers is a powerful courtroom drama adaptation of the award-winning novel by Durban advocate Chris Marnewick. Directed by Oliver Schmitz, Shepherds & Butchers stars Steve Coogan as a defence attorney, who takes on the controversial capital punishment court case of a young prison warden charged with killing several Black men in 1987. Playing a resilient truth-seeking lawyer, he goes head-to-head with the bullish Andrea Riseborough as a tough prosecutor in an emotionally charged courtroom drama.
The film’s tension pivots on the accused’s reluctance to cooperate as harrowing and intense flashbacks of hangings run at odds with the manchild’s fragility. Set against the racial oppression and socio-political issues of a time in South Africa we’d sooner forget, Shepherds & Butchers is taut, siphoning raw power from its earnest performances, visceral visuals, thought-provoking themes and captivating true story.
How much is a life worth? This is the central question at the heart of the authentic and restrained legal drama, Worth, as an altruistic meditation attorney battles cynicism, bureaucracy and politics to assist 9/11 victims. A faint echo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci co-star in a film that recalls Spotlight for its handling of the age, backroom politics and earnest professionalism. Aided by the considerable presence of a third Oscar nominee in Amy Ryan, integrity is the watchword as the characters wrestle with impartiality, detachment and civility.
A chronicle of biographical and historical importance, Worth captures the noble and stirring human drama behind films such as Dark Waters, Margin Call and Sully. Wielding emotional heft against a legalistic environment, it captures heartfelt and sobering stories from families affected by the devastating tragedy. Worth is a dignified and sensitive foray into the aftermath of 9/11 without losing sight of the far-reaching ripple effect.
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