If you read the gossip columns particularly Liz Smith, who seemed to mention the case at every opportunity you may recall Claus von Bulow, the European aristocrat who was convicted of attempting to murder his wealthy wife, Sunny. Then, after an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, was acquitted in a second trial.
"Reversal of Fortune" is the story of the von Bulow case, with Jeremy Irons giving a fabulous performance as Claus von Bulow, shown as a pompous sort who is hated equally by all and, though he is rather distant and wry on the surface, is quite complex within.
But this film, very well-written by Nicholas Kazan ("Frances," "At Close Range," "Patty Hearst") and expertly directed by Barbet Schroeder ("Barfly"), proves to be about much more than just von Bulow. It's an amazing exploration of the American judicial system in a way that is both highly entertaining and incredibly informative.
In a cinematic trick that would seem at first glance to be highly suspect, Kazan and Schroeder use Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close) as the film's narrator as she lies in a coma.
Did her husband really try to kill her? She tells us in the opening moments that the question isn't going to be resolved. Who knows?
But that's not really at issue here. Though there is a "Rashomon" effect, as we see from several points of view the events leading up to Sunny's slipping into a coma after an apparent insulin injection (she was not diabetic), what is at issue in the film is whether von Bulow got a fair trial the first time around. Was justice served?
That is what von Bulow brings to Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), an attorney who is also a law professor at Harvard. And Dershowitz (on whose book the film is largely based) cannot resist, since it is questions of law that seem to intrigue him even more than the innocence or guilt of the people involved.
So Dershowitz gathers his students together to help him research the case on a deadline and the film's real tension begins.
To make a movie as compelling as this one when it has to do with subjects that are largely unknown and/
or abstract especially when they deal with real people is quite an accomplishment. Not to mention the use of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Kazan, Schroeder and the cast deserve great praise.
But two performances must be singled out: Silver, who shows off his incredible range in a role quite different from his two most recent, disparate parts in "Enemies A Love Story" and "Blue Steel." And especially Irons, who makes von Bulow funny, tantalizing and despicable at turns and always interesting.
And whoever came up with the film's memorable final scene deserves extra points.
"Reversal of Fortune" is rated a soft R for language the Eddie Murphy word sprinkled among the dialogue.