Director Barbet Schroeder brought a European sensibility to Reversal of Fortune (1990) that affords the subject the perspective it probably deserves. His Oscar-nominated treatment urges us to take neither the bleak marital arrangements of Claus and Sunny von Bulow nor the legalistic grandstanding of attorney Alan Dershowitz too seriously. His focus is on gamesmanship. The rules—of both society and personal conduct—are examined dispassionately. And it’s a level playing field: no cheap shots at the rich are allowed, and there is only a cool respect, not righteous reverence, for the law.
Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, working from actual transcripts of the notorious trial and Dershowitz’s own account of the proceedings (his book of the same title was published in 1986), clearly knew that what they had on their hands was a superb mystery. Eschewing both tabloid luridness and moral presumption, they have fashioned the mixed motives, circumstantial evidence, and inherent grotesqueries of the case into a mordantly humorous entertainment.
As Claus von Bulow, the mysterious opportunist married to Newport heiress Sunny and convicted of twice trying to kill her by insulin injection, Jeremy Irons is the film’s richest treat. His von Bulow is robustly chill. This was Irons’ most complex performance to date (he won the Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe)—a reach that was large both physically and vocally, yet managed with intricate subtlety. Perhaps his most impressive feat is modulating his characteristically sensitive intelligence into something radically different—something shrewd and inscrutable, more blockish and literal. The voice is also transformed: it’s deeper, rounder, and has the stolid cadence of a world-weary but socially correct Teutonic sensualist.
Irons is particularly funny when his von Bulow tries for a sort of hail-fellow, Gary Cooperish delivery in his talks with Dershowitz (Ron Silver). We begin to look forward to his would-be expansiveness and his occasional jokes that are surprisingly touching in their wry innocence. It is Irons who largely drives the movie, providing its essential mystery, humor, and unpredictability. He nails the overweening self-possession of von Bulow—the central enigma that is fundamental to the story.
Somewhat similarly, Glenn Close dulls her usual spark in rendering Sunny von Bulow as an alcoholic money-puppet. It’s an unsympathetic portrait of a woman whose marked indifference to life, her children, and the opportunities of wealth and privilege is numbing in its vacuous self-destructiveness. Close does manage to eke some colorings of human feelings for her character in a couple of scenes where we sense that she may indeed have been victimized (beyond her own missteps) by her fortune. She creates an absorbing portrayal of the society beauty, now aging, retreating from her millions and her misalliances—in a frumpy Wasp cardigan and a drunken stumble—to her last resort, a closely guarded bathroom stocked with pills.
Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity Harvard law professor who represented Klaus, has a feverish energy that provides the counterbalance for hanging the tale. His scenes with the stable of star law students he hastily assembles to prepare for the second trial have the slick, suspenseful pace of a good documentary. Silver’s may be a larger role than that of Irons or Close, but his manic lawyering feels more like a foil for their showier turns. He is always a reliably realistic actor, and director Schroeder enriches the interplay here by dramatically juxtaposing Silver’s naturalistic common man against Irons’ and Close’s beautifully stylized rendition of the von Bulows.
Schroeder and Kazan successfully blend some fictional assumptions with multifaceted source materials. The cast, all at the top of their game, deliver performances sharpened by intuition and technical virtuosity. The cinematography of Luciano Tovoli has an old-money sheen and Mark Isham’s score a glacial elegance. Reversal of Fortune’s sophisticated sang-froid creeps up on you like a hard frost in the night.
– Hadley Hury