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Reversal of Fortune

One thing that films can do well — yet rarely do right — is their homework. It's what makes films about lawyers more fun than most lawyers, be it Anatomy of a Murder, or The Rainmaker. Even if you know the end results, it's the twists and turns of a case — the research, the legwork, the information — that's so fascinating. And the 1990 Reversal of Fortune, the saga of Claus von Bulow, is as good as legal dramas come. The wealthy von Bulow made headlines in 1982 when he was convicted for the attempted murder his wife Sunny (after she was found in a coma, Claus was accused of giving her an unneeded shot of insulin to cause it — the judge slapped him with a 30 year stretch). The story became a media sensation a second time when, in 1984, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz took the job of organizing the von Bulow appeal, and Dershowitz's subsequent book (also titled Reversal of Fortune) became the source for the film of the same name. In the hands of Barbet Schoeder, a director who likes helming biopics about complicated men (the 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada and 1987's Charles Bukowski film Barfly), Reversal of Fortune becomes a blend of Rashomon-like mystery and black comedy. Narrated by Sunny (Glenn Close) from her comatose state, the film is about how Dershowitz (Ron Silver) comes to defend von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), even though he finds Claus detestable and isn't entirely sure if he's innocent. Taking a team of his grad students along for the trial, Dershowitz uses his and their skills to uncover flaws in the von Bulow conviction (a result of illegally obtained evidence), and because practically everyone who knew Claus found him repulsive (as Dershowitz tells his client, "You do have one thing in your favor — everybody hates you.") Reversal of Fortune offers a powerful legal quandary: Is it worth defending a man who might be guilty but nonetheless was convicted for the wrong reasons? It is a talky film as well — there is a lot of information given about the details of the case (the private investigation done by a private prosecutor, the insulin needle found at Sunny's bedside, her drug use, Claus's involvement and/or complicity in Sunny's death, etc.), but the fine details are what makes the film so outstanding, especially for attentive viewers. Irons won an Academy award for his performance, as he keeps Claus's cards close to his chest while maintaining a dry gallows humor ("What do you give a wife who has everything?" Claus jokes. "A shot of insulin."). He's a cipher, and nobody can be sure of the thoughts in his head, perhaps not even Claus. The court may arrive at a verdict, but von Bulow remains a mystery to the end. Warner's DVD release of Reversal of Fortune is presented in an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in a surprisingly muted Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. Also included is an informative but unfocused audio commentary with director Schoeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. Trailer, snap-case.

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