Reversal Of Fortune Review

Reversal of Fortune begins with a lavish helicopter shot over a series of insanely expensive Rhode Island country houses. It's pornography for property fetishists and it sets the tone ideally for Barbet Schroeder's enjoyable piece of voyeurism. The publicity attendant upon the film when it was released and the subsequent Oscar given to Jeremy Irons for his superb performance as Claus Von Bulow suggested that this is some kind of serious courtroom drama but it's nothing of the sort. It's high camp trash aimed at people who want to know how really horrible the upper classes are and the best thing about it is that Schroeder and Irons are in on the joke. A more sincere film would have been tediously worthy, so that this ended up as silly as it did is something to be grateful for.

An adaptation of the book of the same name, the film is about the appeal of Claus Von Bulow (Irons) after he was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny (Close), who fell into an insulin induced coma in December 1981 and never regained consciousness. Facing 30 years in prison, Von Bulow engaged the radical attorney Alan Dershowitz (Silver) to handle his seemingly impossible appeal. Dershowitz, more accustomed to defending needy clients facing undeserved death penalties, despises his client and the world he represents but finds the case almost indecently fascinating and soon discovers that Von Bulow is just as compelling as his situation is - seemingly - hopeless.

As a trial drama, this material is reasonably exciting and it's interesting to see a courtroom movie where the ambiguity about the guilt of the defendant is maintained right to the end. It's our ambivalence about Von Bulow - as man and as defendant - which makes the film piquant and prevents it from becoming too predictable. Indeed, whenever the film focuses upon Von Bulow it remains very enjoyable, not least because it's very rare for a Hollywood movie to give centre stage to a character who is basically so unsympathetic. Von Bulow is not only upper class and hideously rich, he's patronising, aloof, full of hideously false politesse and borderline racist. But he's also funny, fascinating and oddly likeable because he's conceived as an ambivalent character. We're not really meant to sympathise with him but we can't help feeling that he deserves a break, maybe even if he's guilty. Sometimes it's an appalled fascination; he has a great line when he first meets Dershowitz as he says, "I should tell you that I have the greatest respect for the integrity and intelligence of the Jewish people" and, on meeting his lawyer's colleagues for the first time he cracks a show-stoppingly tasteless joke about his wife's death.

In fact, if the film were just about Von Bulow then there wouldn't be too much of a problem. But, sadly, it isn't. It's also about a heroic Jewish lawyer who is as tenacious and hyperactive as all Jewish characters are in this kind of movie - it's a stereotype of the plucky Jew which is meant to be inoffensive because it's supposedly positive. Dershowitz is the kind of lawyer who wears a blue denim shirt, plays basketball with his students and sits eating Chinese food and watching sports with his depressingly good looking son. He also never stops talking and it's this inability to shut up which makes the character so damned irritating. The ambiguous light in which Von Bulow is seen, and which makes the film unusual, is not extended to the lawyer who remains as pure of heart as Perry Mason and as quick of wit as Groucho Marx (whom he somewhat resembles in this filmic incarnation). The book on which the film is based was written by Dershowitz instead and could not be described as a self-critical portrait. There's certainly much in this lawyer's career for him to be proud of and to somewhat justify a positive representation of him but this kind of adulation isn't really effective in a film which otherwise tries to be evasively non-judgemental. It's even more irksome that the Von Bulow case is interspersed with little snippets in which SuperLawyer tries to get a stay on the execution of two black kids, as if to say that "Hey, he doesn't only take cases for rich WASPs, he cares about poor black people too !" Consequently, we're left with a movie which is lopsided; the bits we want to watch - about witty, wily Von Bulow - can only be got to by trudging through an awful lot of scenes in which SuperLawyer rants incessantly at his resistible associates.

What saves the film and actually makes it worth watching is the brilliant performance of Jeremy Irons. It's customary for people like me to bemoan the predictable sentimentality of the Academy Awards but this is one time that they got it exactly right. Irons has been extraordinary in several films, most notably in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers when he gave a performance of such brilliance that he should have won every award he could have been given. That film stretched him and brought unsuspected qualities to light and it's not surprising that Cronenberg was one of the people Irons thanked in his Oscar speech. Irons keeps Von Bulow remote from us, delivering his dialogue in a lofty, mannered European accented English that offers some very amusing inflections. At times, everything he says seems funny, partly because of that accent and partly because the timing is so superb. It's a great comic-grotesque party piece and it energises a film which might otherwise drown in its production design and pretensions of realism. Like Laurence Olivier in that underrated piece of trashy fun The Betsy, Irons is aware that he's the star of the show and that whatever serious intentions the filmmakers may have harboured, the result was inevitably going to be camp. It's one of the best comic performances in film history and Irons hasn't yet topped it. If only he could have brought some of this witty self-awareness to the character of Humbert in Lolita, he might have made that film far more interesting than it was.

None of the rest of the cast seem to have the awareness of the basic exploitative pulp in which they are appearing. At one point, Glenn Close's Sunny - narrating the film from her comatose position - states "it's easy to forget that all this is about me... lying here" and she's absolutely right. Close is a fine actress who has done some great things but she plays Sunny in a grand-lady manner which is deeply tedious. She's not much more alive in the flashbacks than she is in the hospital bed and it's hard not to wonder why, if Von Bulow did kill her, he waited so long to do it when (on the evidence of this film) she was clearly a pain from the first day they met. Ron Silver is also irritating but in a different way. Every bit of his performance offers endless movement, expressiveness and eloquence and it simply wears you out. The conception of Dershowitz in the movie is, as discussed earlier, essentially bogus but it might have helped if the performance hadn't been so overplayed. The supporting performers are unmemorable with the exception of the lovely Annabella Sciorra and Uta Hagen, who delights in the quirky accent she gets to show off as Sunny's maid.

Barbet Schroeder made an extraordinary film in 1976 called Maitresse which was funny, disturbing, moving and altogether unique. There's nothing in his subsequent career to match it but his work on Reversal Of Fortune is certainly the best thing he has done in the succeeding 28 years. He stages the scenes between Irons and Silver with considerable flair and his recreation of the period using muted colours, largely blues, works well. But his direction of the trial preparation scenes is hopelessly messy with characters remaining undefined and points of law not followed up. He also doesn't show the slightest bit of interest in any of the supporting characters, giving most emphasis to Irons and thus unbalancing the film even further. The construction of the story in flashbacks and voiceover is quite effective but also attenuated and not as exciting as it could be. Given that the case doesn't really have an ending, it's obvious that Shroeder and his writer Nicholas Kazan are having to suggest various different possibilities but they do it clumsily without the elegance that the opening scenes suggest they are capable of. But Schroeder still deserves credit for the eerie black comedy which dominates every time Irons is on screen and for maintaining the ambivalent tone to the end.

It may not be the highest praise to say that Reversal Of Fortune is entertaining trash but the Dershowitz scenes do suggest how bad the movie could have been had it been more serious. The beautifully lush cinematography by Luciano Tovoli - the genius who collaborated with Argento on the look of Suspiria - adds to the tone of guilty enjoyment and Mark Isham's orchestral score blends in well with snatches of Haydn and subdued Wagner. It's a bit of a mess and it's too long, becoming dull whenever it goes for misplaced sincerity. But the pleasures offered by the film can be summed up by the final moments. Von Bulow is in a chemist in New York during the appeal and he asks for a phial of insulin. The attendant looks aghast and he grins, almost imperceptibly, and says, "Just kidding". Now that's what I call style.

The Disc

The Region 1 disc of Reversal Of Fortune offers a commentary along with a pretty good transfer. The Region 2 release from MGM dispenses with the former but, generally speaking, matches the latter.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Nothing much to say about the transfer. It's reasonably clean, following some obvious scratching during the opening credits, and there isn't too much grain on view. The restrained palate used by Tovoli is well represented and there is no serious problem with artifacting.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo recreation of the original Stereo track. It's absolutely fine for this kind of film with crystal clear dialogue and the right and left channels occasionally used for directional sound effects.

In the way of extras, we just get the original theatrical trailer which does a good job of selling a film which must have been a publicist's nightmare.

There are 16 chapter stops and MGM's usual wide range of subtitles.

The sheer fun of Jeremy Irons' wicked performance makes Reversal Of Fortune worth a look but you may well be disappointed that this sense of black humour isn't extended into the overly earnest scenes of Dershowitz or the flashback sequences. The DVD is adequate but nothing more and fans of the film will presumably want to hear what the writer and director have to say on the R1 disc released by Warners.

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