It would be tempting to call Reversal of Fortune the greatest TV movie ever made. Yet that wouldn’t begin to do it justice. This brilliant and outrageously entertaining film is a meticulous reenactment of one of the great dark-side-of-the-privileged sagas of our time — the consumately creepy affair of Claus von Bülow. Sticking to the known facts and theories, screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and director Barbet Schroeder lay out the story of how Von Bülow, the elegant and sinister Danish-born aristocrat, was convicted of trying to murder his wife, Sunny, by injecting her with insulin (to this day, she lies in an irreversible coma); how he hired Harvard law scholar and professional media star Alan Dershowitz to handle his appeal; how the conviction was overturned; and how, despite his court-certified innocence, he remained a tabloid icon of evil.
Reversal of Fortune, which is based on Dershowitz’s 1986 book about the case, tells the stories of both men. The movie is at once a complex legal drama, a comedy of manners, a sordid peek into the lives of the idle rich, and — finally — a tragedy about the idle rich.
Structurally, the film is more about Dershowitz (Ron Silver), the earnest Cambridge workaholic and single dad — a vintage mensch driven internally by an amoral force: the caustic, devious, relentlessly logical machine that is a lawyer’s mind. It was clear even at the time that Dershowitz, a publicity nut who’d cultivated a reputation as Defender of the Downtrodden, took the case not necessarily because he though Von Bülow was innocent but because it represented some sort of ultimate moral-legal challenge. (This was the closest the liberal, Jewish Dershowitz was ever going to get to defending Hitler.) In the film, the scenes in which Dershowitz gathers clues and hammers out strategies with his army of law-student assistants are exciting and funny. It’s doubtful any courtroom thriller has ever captured the gradations, the incredible nuances, of circumstantial evidence the way this one does.
Yet the movie is also a portrait of Von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) and his stultifying marriage to Sunny (Glenn Close), whose fortune vastly exceeded his — and it’s here, I think, that it attains a perverse kind of greatness. Tall, with thinning hair and a corpselike scowl, Irons creates a mesmerizing portrait of internalized depravity. In the past, he has sometimes seemed a poisonously repressed performer, his sallow skin and droning English monotone emblems of a deathly reserve. But deathly reserve is what this performance is about, and Irons goes all the way with it.
His Claus is the aristocrat as rotting Victorian ghoul, a man so hemmed in by his snobbery, his suppressed rage, his twisted Continental elegance that he has turned the life-denying mannerisms of the uppercrust into a ghastly form of style. Thrusting out his head as though it were a periscope, stretching out vowels with luxurious, William Buckley-like deliberation, Irons finds glints of sophisticated self-mockery in the man. The achievement of the performance is that even as Von Bülow remains a monstrous enigma, he comes to seem a touching, almost endearing figure. His relationship with Dershowitz is curiously symbiotic. Where the dweebish, rambunctious Dershowitz can barely keep his mouth shut, Von Bülow regards showing feelings — any feelings — as the ultimate vulgarity. Yet the two have one thing in common: They know they’re using each other. Irons caps the mystery of Claus’ character in the final scene, one of the most delicious kickers in movie history.
Was Claus guilty? After leading us through alternate versions of the events, Reversal of Fortune suggests that Sunny — a suicidal drug addict — was edging toward the end anyway, and that Claus simply helped her along by not calling the doctor when she’d medicated herself into unconsciousness. Yet the film is ultimately ambiguous on these matters — and the ambiguity isn’t a dramatic gimmick. Reversal of Fortune places us deep inside the cold heart of the Von Bülow’s marriage. Glenn Close, in a superb performance, gives Sunny a haunting delicacy and stillness; she’s a woman watching the life force leak out of her and not caring. By the end, whether or not Claus did the deed almost doesn’t matter. Simply by staying in this hellish marriage, he was committing a civilized, passive form of murder.
Within the museum-like walls of Clarendon Court (Sunny von Bülow’s exquisite Newport mansion), the movie becomes a macabre comedy, a grisly modern extension of the Xanadu scenes in Citizen Kane. Yet it’s never just voyeuristic. Reversal of Fortune exploits our collective fascination with the Von Bülow case and then insists that these tabloid superstars are all too human. The filmmakers have done something impossibly sly: They’ve come up with a profoundly honest movie about Claus von Bülow that even Claus von Bülow could love. A