Painstakingly detailed yet tantalizing in its ambiguity, Reversal of Fortune dramatizes the real-life case of Claus von Bulow. Von Bulow (portrayed by Jeremy Irons in an Academy Award-winning performance) is an aristocratic European emigré who was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, New York socialite Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close), who plunged into a coma from which she has never awakened. Director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) doesn't concern himself overmuch with the original trial but instead lavishes his attentions on the appeal of von Bulow's conviction, an effort led by idealistic attorney Alan Dershowitz (superbly impersonated by Ron Silver). Irons portrays von Bulow as an inscrutable snob for whom his defenders have little affection. Nonetheless, Dershowitz and his impassioned legal team chip away at the prosecution's flawed case, and the chronicling of their efforts becomes the crux of Reversal's narrative. Flashbacks illuminate some of the events leading up to Sunny's coma-inducing overdose, and Close is riveting in the small but pivotal role of the doomed socialite. But while Schroeder's film accurately portrays the outcome of Dershowitz's appeal, it leaves many questions unanswered -- and the suave, icy von Bulow is just as much an enigma at the fade-out as he was at the fade-in. Part courtroom thriller, part intellectual exercise, Reversal of Fortune is guaranteed to grip viewers from its opening moments and hold them spellbound through the closing credits. Fascinating, too, is Schroeder's and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan's detailed discussion of their film and the real-life case in the audio commentary on the DVD.
Thanks to Jeremy Irons' performance, Reversal of Fortune is less a conventional murder mystery than a trenchant social satire, a scathing study of a morally corrupt upper class. Working from a book by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, writer Nicholas Kazan gives the film a peculiar, witty tone, avoiding obvious social commentary. Barbet Schroeder's direction is solid, but the film owes its success more to the outstanding performances of its leads. Apart from Irons' Oscar-winning work, Ron Silver and Glenn Close are also terrific as Dershowitz and the spaced-out Sunny von Bulow. Schroeder was previously best known as a producer of some of the best films of the French New Wave.
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