Reversal of Fortune

Reversal of Fortune (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close) has fallen into a coma, her second time within the past year. Overwhelming evidence point to the guilt of her husband, Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons), and so the jury sentence him thirty years in prison. Although the toxicology report indicates that high levels of insulin is present in Sunny’s blood in which bottles of the drug are found by the maid (Uta Hagen) in Claus’ possessions, the husband insists that he is innocent. Greatly despised by the public for his alleged murder attempt, Claus hires Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), a Jewish Harvard law professor with a reputation for defending the poor and the oppressed, to prove his innocence on the critical second trial.

Based on a book by Alan M. Dershowitz, the best decision that the filmmakers of “Reversal of Fortune” is its adamancy to remain vague about intentions and motivations. The question of whether or not Claus really did try to insidiously kill his wife with insulin remains in our minds up until the very last unsettling but intriguing scene. Specific events that play out, such as how Sunny ends up in the bathroom face-down with her dress pulled up, are left for speculation. Because the answer is not obvious, the characters, all of them very smart, are challenged to weigh the possibilities–and so are we.

Although Alan is the main character with whom we rely on to ascertain the facts, his team, majority of whom are his students, hold a mirror to reflect some of his ideas and, more importantly, why some of them might be perceived as flawed. Minnie (Felicity Huffman) is especially critical of the types of questions brought up by her colleagues in order for them to successfully defend the case. There is a wonderful scene between Minnie and Alan when the former expresses her disapproval toward the latter defending publicly perceived scum like Claus. While Alan’s argument depends on the ideals of everyone deserving to have someone fight for his or her rights, the exchange is executed in a heated but insightful way. If anything, the argument is not really about rights but to show us Alan’s steely resolve.

Irons’ performance scared me at times, his movements reflects that of a feline encircling his prey. His character is supposed to be the kind of man who is naturally cold even to those he loves most. Whether he is speaking to his wife, children, or mistress, his voice carries a certain level of detachment. Although he has a strong sense of propriety, some might cite elegance, I just had trouble trusting him. Then I began to wonder: Is the picture testing our own prejudices? In other words, just because a person seems consistently emotionally neutral, does that necessarily imply that he or she is capable of murder? How is Claus different from someone who is diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder? Or is he at all different from them?

Based on the screenplay by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Barbet Schroeder, “Reversal of Fortune” treats us as if we are one of the jury members. Facts, interpretations, and point of views are presented and it is up to us to decide whether Claus is culpable.

2 replies »

    • Thanks, Ben! It means I’m doing what I set out to do: digging up lesser-known or forgotten movies and recommending ones that are worth watching.

      I hope you get to see it some time so I can read your take on it.

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