Sunday, October 17, 2010
Still a Strange Man After All These Years
When millionaire Claus von Bülow was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny in 1982, he asked high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz to appeal the case. Dershowitz accepted, and, in 1985, wrote a book about it. From this book came the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, directed by Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female, Barfly), a mystery drama that plays on the borders of thriller and dark comedy. With a glorious 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, critics agree that Reversal of Fortune is certainly a film worthy of revisiting on this, its 20th anniversary.
Above all things, the script is the most impressive aspect of Reversal of Fortune. It takes a multifaceted approach, making our narrator the philosophically waxing comatose Sunny, putting Claus, our might-be-murderer, in the unlikely shoes of "hero," and topping it all off with the "Jewish New York Lawyer" stereotype as Claus's Champion of Justice. Then, rather than going the route of cold and legal docudrama, director Barbet Schroeder and writer Nicholas Kazan take Dershowitz's material and make it an ethics-questioning whodunit that goes beyond "did he or didn't he?" and deeply into the themes of class difference and Big-Picture Justice, all while rooting us firmly with an entertaining air of suspense that keeps you glued to the screen.
MINNIE: Yeah, OK, so, someone's got to defend Claus. But why you, why us?
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Look, you're my student, you, you have a choice. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do; that is your choice. The reason I take cases — and here I'm unlike most other lawyers, who are not professors and therefore have to make a living — I take cases because I get pissed off. And I am pissed off here. The family hired a private prosecutor: unacceptable! They conducted a private search! Now if we let them get away with that, rich people won't go to the cops any more. You know what they're going to do? They're going to get their own lawyers to collect evidence — and then they are going to choose which evidence they feel like passing on to the DA. And the next victim isn't going to be rich, like von Bülow — but it's going to be some poor schnook in Detroit who can't afford, or who can't find, a decent lawyer.
RAJ: I agree von Bülow is guilty, but then, that's the fun — that's the challenge.
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Now there is a lawyer.
Of course, for as exquisite as the writing may be, the cherries that top this film are the performances of a hoity and entitled Glenn Close, a nerdy and driven Ron Silver and a deliciously stoic Jeremy Irons in his Academy Award-winning performance as Claus von Bülow. He exudes his character's cold and nigh-malignant demeanor, but not without enough sentimentality to inspire sympathy and even occasionally pity, if only for a little while.
Reversal of Fortune is an intelligently written, wonderfully nuanced film with characters that are just different enough to be as fresh and entertaining as they were 20 years ago.