Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver, Glenn Close
Grade: C+

Reversal of Fortune begins with the facetious introduction you're more accustomed to hearing on an episode of Desperate Housewives. Glenn Close, as troubled braindead corpse Sunny Von Bulow, provides an immediate voice-over narration from all-but-beyond-the-grave, casually outlining her husband Claus's subsequent arrest for her murder, while at the same time remaining maddeningly coy about whether Mr. Von Bulow is guilty or not. It's no real spoiler to divulge that the film never reaches a concrete conclusion about this - admirably, it can be argued - but in walking a non-committal line Barbet Schroeder's film quickly opts for an easy way out.

That "way out" is Jeremy Irons, given license to colour the accused Claus's ubiquitous self-satisfaction with shades of mystery (a freedom he guzzles as rapturously as his character does champagne), and singularly responsible for shifting perceptions of Von Bulow's gainly mechanics and bone-dry humour. The uproarious Irons allays the menace and revelry enough to allude to the man's use of wit and façade as a defence mechanism, somewhat justifying the sanguine attitude towards his wife's death and the impending threat of lifelong imprisonment by playing up to his status as an hermetic media villain. This role also won Irons an Oscar at his first and only attempt.

The decision of Schroeder et. al to let Irons have the floor could therefore be seen as a wise one, were the attempts to back up character analysis with investigative intricacy more substantative. Employed to take on the defence case is lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), whose vocation is now based more in the world of academia than the courtroom. The cynical Prof. Dershowitz recruits his students to help him analyse the demise of Mrs. Claus - a case which mostly comprises of medical deficiencies and unambitious timing issues popular with hour-long TV crime drama's. Moreover, the very nature of Reversal of Fortune's analytical strand appears to stretch Von Bulow's humility to questionable lengths. A risk-taking debonair he may be, but enough ingrained in the class system to entrust his case to more cunning, reputable practicioners than Dershowitz and his merry men.

So no, I'm pretty sure that Schroeder makes a dire mistake in heaping all of his eggs into one basket, bound by component Irons and his slow-burning genius, to the point where his tour-de-force renders the film's flashbacks redundant. Pre-occupied with maintaining a stolid median, the interspersed scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Von Bulow feel tentatively reluctant to reveal much about either their relationship or the tragic events that ended it. Instead, I suspect that the story plays as it was actually born, and that watching Von Bulow's feather-ruffling was enough to deem an altogether tedious non-event worthy of adaptation.

Something that feels particularly poorly thought-out is the title. It would have been interesting to have experienced and witnessed the reaction to Reversal of Fortune, a film that teeters but never veers enough to reach obtuse angles, never mind a one-hundred-and-eighty degree swing. And thus, there we have it; a movie one man cannot conquer. He can, however, electrify a film that never quite reaches the courage of Claus Von Bulow himself, and for that the titular fortune, while not gold, is glittering, majestic Irons.

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