In Barbet Schroeder's spellbinding Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons plays the pure incarnation of evil. He projects such chilling condescension and such sinister cynicism as the Danish-born aristocrat Claus von Bulow that his guilt or innocence in the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny, hardly seems to matter.
Claus' most heinous crime isn't possibly having injected Sunny with insulin, rendering her permanently comatose. It's being a world-class heel.
Impeccably dressed, properly mannered, always in control of the situation _ seemingly by virtue of social class _ Irons' Claus becomes one of the most despicable characters ever created on screen.
But there's a catch. In Irons' incarnation, Claus von Bulow is something more, something ignored by the media and the public who vilified him for his arrogance.
In Reversal of Fortune, Claus is hopelessly tragic. Irons portrays him as a man incapable of feeling, of ever knowing genuine emotions. He is a cipher, merely going through the motions of loving or caring, destined to live off others' compassion and their riches.
Irons actually stirs pity for Claus by capitalizing on his dry wit and the emptiness that overwhelms his existence as he sits idly in his New York apartment or in the expansive drawing rooms of Sunny's Newport, R.I., manse, Clarendon Court.
Reversal of Fortune, written by Nicholas Kazan, is based on Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz's book about his representation of Claus before the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Von Bulow already had been convicted of twice attempting to murder Sunny. Dershowitz won a new trial, which led to Claus' acquittal.
Crisply written as a complex legal drama set, the film's primary concern is class: Claus' rigid, lifeless, WASP-y upper-crust existence contrasted with Dershowitz's noisy, passionate, messy, liberal, Jewish pseudo-middle-class life.
A curly-topped, moustachioed Ron Silver, superbly playing Dershowitz, fumbles uncomfortably in von Bulow's opulent Manhattan apartment at their first meeting. He assumes Claus is guilty despite von Bulow's pompous protestation: "I am innocent. I give you my word as a gentleman."
Lunch at Delmonico's proves equally unsettling. "I have the greatest respect for the integrity and intelligence of the Jewish people," Claus informs Dershowitz, aware the law professor knows von Bulow's father was a Nazi collaborator.
Dershowitz takes the case, not because he believes Claus, but because Sunny's children hired an attorney to search their house, find evidence, conduct laboratory tests and then present the findings to police for legal action. Dershowitz fears the rich could ultimately prosecute whomever they pleased through privately conducted investigations.
This is perhaps the only significant element that Reversal of Fortune fails to address by its end. Kazan's meticulously crafted script instead plunges through the 100 days of preparation for von Bulow's defense.
Dershowitz hires law students, paralegals and recent graduates to specialize in various aspects of the case, and then pick apart and find the flaws in the prosecution's medical evidence and the testimony by Sunny von Bulow's children and maid.
The image of Sunny that emerges from their research makes her seem even more tragic than her husband. As depicted in the film, her drinking and drug abuse relegated her to the ranks of the living dead long before her brief 1979 coma and the later coma from which she has not emerged. Flashback passages depict her stolid existence with Claus and her two children.
Silenced in life, Sunny is afforded an opportunity to speak through Reversal of Fortune in her current vegetative state. Her voice rises from the hospital bed where she has lain for nearly a decade.
"Is he the devil? If so, can the devil get justice?" she asks.
The incorporation of Sunny's perspective gives Reversal of Fortune an eerie sense of dimensionality. One has the sense that Sunny, played with pained bitterness by Glenn Close, remains tormented.
From her solitary existence in a private nursing center, her soul miraculously senses that Claus is living in her apartment, sleeping with other women and, somehow, enjoying life just a little more than she did. For Sunny, that may be the worst death of all.
Reversal of Fortune
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Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver
Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan, based on the book by Alan Dershowitz
Rating: R; profanity, sexual innuendo
Running time: 110 minutes
Excellent XXXXX; Very good XXXX;
Good XXX; Mediocre XX; Poor X