Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Reversal of Fortune (1990)

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“I could do anything to you in your sleep.” 

A twisted hypothetical that's played for laughs by Nancy Travis and Mike Myers in 1993's underrated comedic thriller So I Married an Axe Murderer becomes a sinister threat that lives in the back of our mind in filmmaker Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune.

A dramatization of one of the most shocking and notorious court cases of the late twentieth century, the film – based on the book by defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz – puts us immediately off balance. Plunging the viewer right into the heart of the crime (if, indeed, there's been one), within its first five minutes, we start to question just what exactly the ever-shady, emotionally detached Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) did or did not do to his socialite wife Sunny (Glenn Close), that's left the woman in a coma from which she will never awaken. 

The second near-fatal incident to send her to the hospital, almost one year to the day of her first (which might have been an overdose), in its aftermath, Sunny's grown children from her previous marriage hire their own detectives to investigate their stepfather. Gathering enough evidence for a trial, the children and their experts secure Claus von Bülow's swift, thirty-year conviction for attempted murder. 

In nearly every other case – the ones that don't involve the rich, of course – this is where the story would end. Ask any policeman who the first suspect in an attack on a woman is and they'll tell you it's her husband, boyfriend, or ex-lover without batting an eye. But is it that simple here? 

A hypodermic needle encrusted with insulin found in a black medical bag among Claus' possessions was the trial's smoking gun but whose needle is it really? And what about that bag? A sleazy drug dealer to the rich (played with slicked-back yuppie swagger by Fisher Stevens) claims it belonged to Sunny's son, as in the same son who employed the detective who conducted an unlawful search and “found” it among his step-father's things. 

Was he procuring drugs for his mother? Did the hypoglycemic Sunny use insulin just like she used aspirin – which she popped like Tic-Tacs – or alcohol, which she drank like a fish while celebrating Christmas? And what about the timing of Sunny's collapse, which seems to have occurred just when the couple was talking about divorcing after Claus violated their extramarital understanding by having an affair with a woman (Julie Hagerty) who moved in the same circles that they did? 

All of these questions fascinate the brilliant yet morally flexible lawyer Alan Dershowitz (a fine Ron Silver), who Claus contacts to handle his appeal. Initially turning the case down because he thinks it's a no-win and the man is guilty, at the same time, this question of whether or not the wealthy deserve equal due process under the law appeals to Alan on an academic level. What right do the rich have to hire and build their own case with their own police to exact the justice they feel they deserve? Even if he's guilty as sin, was Claus railroaded? And if he can be railroaded, doesn't that mean it's worse for the rest of us or it might be if Alan were to leave him to rot?

Working with his best and brightest legal students, along with his colleague and ex-lover (well played by the criminally underutilized Annabella Sciorra), Alan uses Claus to finance his pro-bono work but then discovers that he not only doubts much of the evidence used to convict his client but also believes the man is innocent.

Fueled by the eerily objective narration from a nearly beyond the grave Sunny (a terrific Glenn Close), director Barbet Schroeder crafts a creepy, biting satire of the amoral, tawdry, and privileged in the '80s. Yet Reversal of Fortune plays with even more sinister nuance, calculated menace, and resigned malaise in today's era of a president who skirts justice at every turn. Furthermore, thirty-five years after Dershowitz wrote the book that At Close Range screenwriter Nick Kazan adapted for the screen that turned him into a complex crusader, now Trump too has the advantage of Dershowitz's legendary defense capabilities for himself.

But while all of that makes the film more meta in this new, immaculate Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, which coincides with its thirtieth anniversary, the biggest reason to watch Reversal of Fortune in 2020 is the same as it was in 1990 when Jeremy Irons walked away with the Academy Award for Best Actor for his astonishingly unnerving performance.

Finding a single vowel in each word to accentuate by stretching it past the breaking point of his British baritone, every syllable that Irons says onscreen as Claus sounds as dazzlingly extemporaneous as it does lived-in and rehearsed. Although some might argue it's too affected, this approach fits von Bülow perfectly. A different kind of villain, in Irons' Claus, we're faced with someone who's as much a devious yet innocent man caught between a rock and a hard place as he is the guiltiest figure who's ever lived. 

Adopting an artful way of holding his cigarette like a sword and leaning back in each scene like a rattlesnake ready to strike, this is an actor at his most masterfully self-possessed. Taking his portrayal of Claus right to the edge of Niagara Falls, Irons cheekily sends him over in a barrel every so often, before he quickly dries off, and climbs right back to the top again. A staggering accomplishment all around, he never lets his performance descend into the realm of caricature. 

Making us more sympathetic towards Claus concerning the question of his guilt at the exact same time that we become even more repulsed by his true feelings about women, once Kazan, Schroeder, and Irons unearth suspicions about previous deaths that have followed Claus to the United States from England, they leave us reeling.

A sardonic, coal-black study of the upper crust, as well as the double standards of the law when it comes to the different economic classes, Reversal of Fortune is an uneasy film about good and evil that we can't easily shake. Angering, delighting, shocking, and frustrating viewers in equal measure (as much for the questions it answers as the ones it doesn't), this movie gets under our skin and attacks the bloodstream. Leaving us obsessed, it takes over like an injection that may or may not have been administered in our sleep.

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