Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Reversal of Fortune

A complex and unjudgemental film, Reversal of Fortune takes the bare facts of the infamous von Bulow murder case and adds a compelling layer of fiction. Partially narrated by Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close), from her hospital bed, the story begins with Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) released on bail. Convicted of twice attempting to murder his wife Sunny, but only succeeding in putting her in a coma, Claus is looking for a hot-shot lawyer to win his appeal. The trail takes him to Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), a Harvard law professor who takes cases because they interest him not because they pay well. To Alan this case is the antithesis of everything he stands for; his previous clients are a pair of black kids sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit, whereas Claus is a rich and hated man, who is probably guilty. However, Dershowitz has this recurring dream where Hitler appears and asks for representation. Alan isn't sure whether to agree or kill him, eventually following the pragmatic route of taking the case then killing Hitler later. Hence, Alan takes on Claus' appeal.

As time is short, Dershowitz quickly gathers around him a team of high-flying students and former associates. Initially some members are leery of taking the case, questioning Dershowitz's motives and pre-judging Claus as guilty. Alan shows his class as a lawyer by proving that this isn't really anything to do with von Bulow, it's about a rich family hiring private detectives and choosing which evidence they feel like giving to the police. Next time the victim could be someone unable to defend themselves, unlike Claus, and that really makes Alan mad. Splitting into separate groups, a huge number of flaws are soon found in the prosecution's case. The physical evidence is weak, the chains of logic fragile and the witnesses unreliable. The weight of this is not enough though, given the nature of the appeal judges; Alan can only succeed when he recognises Claus as a man rather than as a stereotypical wealthy layabout.

While the investigation proceeds, various flashbacks build up a picture of the von Bulows and their married life together. Initially it seems that they had a loveless relationship, with Claus greedy for her wealth and Sunny desperate for affection. The reality is far more strange, an existence shaped by living in a social strata where extra-marital affairs are almost expected and maintaining an image of normality is essential. Beneath this we are shown a time when Claus and Sunny really cared for each other, passionately, and were, perhaps, in love. Time took its toll as Claus tired of living at Sunny's whim, desiring to return to legal practice, while Sunny hid her pain within a cloud of pills and alcohol. Even so, the devotion still remained for Claus as he dealt uncomplainingly with Sunny's spoilt demands and attention-seeking devices. This is a life alien to Dershowitz, a place which he can be within but can never enter.

The critical factor for a movie such as Reversal of Fortune is, do you believe that the central character (Claus von Bulow) has the potential for such an act [rather than is he, or is he not, guilty]. The astonishing strength and depth of Irons' performance is such that this is never a problem. As a person Claus is arrogant, reserved, intelligent, difficult to know and possibly a racist. Not a particularly nice man to meet, yet Irons imbues him with humanity, decency and an anachronistic air. The surrounding performances are also excellent (Close does well with a comatose Sunny) and quite believable. The script is solid enough to introduce a reasonable level of tension, as the appeal approaches, and quite deft with a number of interesting sub-plots (particularly that of the low-life who intends to frame Dershowitz). A surprising amount of black humour pops up, particularly from Claus, which adds to the verisimilitude and the enjoyment. The sets are also rather fine, given that we're viewing the homes of the seriously wealthy.

None of this would matter though if the film had tripped up on a single point, that of deciding whether Claus von Bulow is guilty or innocent. Since this is something that will probably never be known the script wisely avoids answering such a question, even to the extent of introducing a level of uncertainty within Claus' and Sunny's memory of the events. It's refreshing to be considered adult enough to make up my own mind on this ambiguous issue, rather than being force-fed the opinions of the film-makers.

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