Published on March 26th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Reversal of Fortune [1990]

Reversal of Fortune [1990] Clint Davis

Summary: This dramatization of a highly-publicized appellate trial is dry and somewhat dull, but outstanding lead performances and unconventional storytelling make it worth a watch.



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R  |  111 min.

Director: Barbet Schroeder  |  Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan (based on Alan Dershowitz’s Reversal of Fortune: Inside the Von Bulow Case)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Ron Silver

Studio: Warner Bros.

Before the O.J. Simpson trial kept Americans glued to their televisions for weeks, inspiring a renewed interest in courtroom drama–the Von Bulow case had the world glued to their tabloids.

To set the stage, in late-1980, Claus and Sunny von Bulow were a wealthy socialite couple living in their Rhode Island mansion.  The pair, along with their three children (two from Sunny’s previous marriage, one together) are celebrating Christmas when Sunny began to feel ill.  Assuming she had merely enjoyed too many egg nogs, Claus ushers her to bed–little did the family know it would be their final time seeing her upright.  The next day, the family’s matriarch was found face down on the bathroom floor in what turned out to be a coma brought on by an apparent insulin overdose.  As their marriage had begun to visibly decay, Claus was eventually blamed for his wife’s vegetative state by allegedly drugging her–he was eventually found guilty of attempted murder by a jury.

Reversal of Fortune covers Claus’s subsequent appeal of this verdict, with the help of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.  In the film, Claus von Bulow is portrayed by the ever-frightening Jeremy Irons, who won an Oscar for his performance.  The other principle players include Glenn Close as Sunny von Bulow and Ron Silver as Dershowitz, both of whom are outstanding here.

According to original promotional materials (posters, trailers, etc…), Reversal of Fortune tantalized audiences with hope of discovering “what really happened” on that December day in New England.  On this promise, the movie doesn’t live up to its word.  The screenplay is based on Dershowitz’s book chronicling his findings in the case, but unless they discovered some invisible witness who saw everything that led to Sunny’s coma, there’s no reason to delude the audience with false hope of shocking new truths.

As a piece of cinema, I enjoyed Reversal of Fortune because although it feels like a conventional, formulaic film–it’s actually quite experimental in its execution.  Director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female, Murder by Numbers) employs a variety of styles here including a number of dramatized accounts showing what could have happened that day (a la The Thin Blue Line) and perhaps most jarring, using a comatose Sunny von Bulow as the film’s narrator.

This latter device was what kept Reversal of Fortune from being a great movie, in my opinion.  I found Glenn Close’s voice-over’s to be distracting, off-putting, and uncomfortable.  The idea of putting words into a vegetative woman’s mouth isn’t something I’m comfortable with, especially in a film that is supposedly a factual account of a courtroom trial.  Also, the fact that the film’s story revolves around an appeal case rather than a jury trial, means that a mere five minutes of the movies running time is spent in a courtroom.

Jeremy Irons and Ron Silver make a dynamic onscreen pair.

This movie is all about the performances, as all three stars carry their weight magnificently.  Irons is at his cold, calculated best as a man that the public had already decided was guilty long before his day in court.  Close, who remains one of the most underrated talents of her era, brings dignity in portraying a woman that clearly had her share of personal issues, and Ron Silver is electric among a cast of stuffy, blue-blooded characters.

I give Schroeder and his crew credit for making a dramatic re-telling of a highly-publicized event that appears fair in its portrayal of the facts.  Its fairness is especially shocking when you notice Oliver Stone’s name listed as a producer, because he’s not known for subtlety when it comes to broadcasting opinions.

Overall, Reversal of Fortune is an honest, if unexciting look at a case that had newspapers flying from shelves in the 1980s.  It may not rivet you, but as a well-acted, well-made piece of film, this one mostly works.

Buy Reversal of Fortune on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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