Reversal of Fortune (1990) – A gripping account of a once-famous case

Iranian-born French director Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune is the third film apart from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Martin Scorsese’s Casino to employ the narrative device of using a dead/comatose person narrate the film in a periodic manner. The narrator here is Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close), a wealthy American socialite who falls into a severe and extensive coma as a result of an insulin overdose. The blame falls on her husband Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), a European socialite. Claus is suspected of administering the insulin and is charged with attempted murder. Claus’ peculiar personality leads everyone to the conclusion that it is indeed who tried to kill her. He is found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. But Claus maintains that he is innocent and files for an appeal. He hires a skilled Jewish lawyer named Alan Dershowitz (a wildly enthusiastic Ron Silver) to represent him. It is Dershowitz’s book Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case that the film is based upon and provides an immensely gripping and ambiguous account of the entire case.

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The book is told, of course, from Dershowitz’s point-of-view but the screenplay makes some small changes and kind of adopts a satirical approach. It narrates the whole thing from Sunny’s point-of-view. She passed away in 2008 after remaining in a persistent vegetative state for 28 long years. The film does not give us any clear answers as to whether Claus really had any hand in her death. Even Dershowitz is not sure and it becomes quite obvious to us. For such a serious story, the screenplay manages to find enough opportunities for providing a balanced dose of humor, most of it coming from the numerous scenes where Dershowitz is shown engaging in some nerve-wracking brainstorming sessions with his law students (one of them being an Indian). The character dynamics are a delight to watch, especially those between Silver and Irons. The film won Irons his well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor. As the eccentric and dubious Claus, Irons is simply outstanding. He exudes a natural sophistication in every frame and succeeds in delivering a performance that is infused with a great deal of subtlety, menace and charm. This is Schroeder’s second Hollywood film after the terrific Barfly (starring Micky Rourke), which was based on the life of Charles Bukowski.

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