Can the Devil get justice? Rethinking “Reversal of Fortune.”

Although the film Reversal of Fortune is as much (or more) about law as it is about medicine, this blog was conceived as a part of the “Medicine in the Movies” Blogathon on Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews Blog. Thanks for the chance to participate!

On the morning of December 22, 1980, in a waterfront mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, millionaire socialite Martha “Sunny” Crawford von Bülow was found on the floor of her bathroom, her pulse very slow, body temperature icy cold, and completely unconscious. She was rushed to the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. Incredibly, she remained this way for 28 years–essentially brain-dead–until her death in a New York nursing home in December 2008. In the years immediately following this incident, one of the strangest and most sensational criminal cases in recent American history played out. Claus von Bülow, Sunny’s aloof and deeply creepy second husband, was charged with trying to kill Sunny with deliberate overdoses of insulin, which caused her diabetic coma. Supposedly the December 1980 incident was only the latest in his repeated attempts to kill her, or at least that was the theory hatched by von Bülow’s step-children, Sunny’s kids by her first husband. After two trials Claus was acquitted of attempted murder in 1985. But what really happened?

The story of Claus’s ordeal, and particularly the legal appeal of his first conviction for attempted murder, was dramatized in a much-overlooked 1990 film by Swiss director Barbet Schroeder, for which Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor for portraying Claus. The film is basically a duet (or duel, in terms of acting talent) between Irons and the late Ron Silver as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Claus’s lawyer, on whose memoir of the case Reversal of Fortune is based. Written and filmed more as a medical mystery thriller than a courtroom drama, Reversal of Fortune is a tense, intimate look at many things: wealth, high society, decaying marriage, moral culpability and how the American systems of both law and medicine can define, shape or even end our lives.

Reversal of Fortune, the film, utilizes the voice of the comatose Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close), who evidently exists in some kind of omniscient plane seeing everything that happens, as the narrator. The story of both her 1980 coma and a similar incident in December 1979 are told quickly, in the terse style of a crime thriller, setting up Claus’s conviction and his desperate need to reverse his fortunes, so to speak, in appellate court. Dershowitz reluctantly accepts the case, and a series of flashbacks establish the von Bülows’ troubled marriage, which involves casual infidelity, hidden jealousy and alcohol abuse. It also heavily involves Sunny’s health, or lack thereof. Though it spends much of its running time on the arguments among Dershowitz and his fellow lawyers and law students, who are assisting him in the case, the film ultimately returns to the night in question, offering at least three competing and inconsistent possibilities for what happened to Sunny that night. The question that lingers at the film’s conclusion–particularly in light of Irons’s portrayal of Claus von Bülow as a perverse sociopath–is not just whether he did it, but whether Dershowitz and the lawyers are morally culpable after the fact for helping him get away with it.

Interestingly, the film treats both medicine and law as deeply flawed and potentially dangerous institutions, neither of which have a monopoly on truth, accuracy or moral neutrality. The heart of the prosecution’s case against Claus is essentially medical: a hypodermic needle encrusted with insulin is proffered as the murder weapon. Other bits of medical information–like a chemical analysis that shows Sunny tried to overdose on aspirin before her 1979 coma incident–seem to cut in the direction of suicide. The lawyers try to game the medical system to Claus’s advantage, for instance, by resubmitting a test needle to a medical lab in an attempt to get a false positive result for insulin (thus shedding doubt on the prosecution’s case). Sunny’s omniscient voice almost taunts the audience: at one point she asks, “All this legal activity…is it in Satan’s service?” and “Can the Devil get justice?” These questions, never definitively answered, are at the heart of Reversal of Fortune, but it’s more than just a knee-jerk indictment of amoral lawyers seeking to win at any cost. There’s a more subtle subtext here, and that’s what gives Reversal of Fortune its power.

This scene from Reversal of Fortune showcases Jeremy Irons’s seemingly effortless performance as Claus von Bülow. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of the creepy European millionaire.

Sunny at times seems as victimized by doctors and the medical system as she is by her cold and devious husband. In explaining why he refused to call a doctor during her 1979 episode until Sunny was almost dead, Claus tells Dershowitz, “Why did I stay at my wife’s side all day without calling a doctor? Because Sunny detested doctors! If you called one without her approval, she went berserk.” At least one contributing cause of Sunny’s malaise appears to be her addiction to various prescription drugs. The trappings of wealth surrounding the von Bülow family–gilded bedsteads, Persian carpets, long marble-floored hallways echoing with soft footsteps–seems to underscore how trapped and insular their lives are. The idleness of the very wealthy is treated in the film almost like a chronic medical condition in itself. If Sunny did overdose herself on insulin, which is one of the theories dramatized in the film, it may have been to escape from her earthly burdens: indeed, in one scene, just before she collapses, Sunny smiles with relief at her reflection in a mirror.

Reversal of Fortune is a great film. It’s beautifully and simply shot, richly acted, smartly written and tightly directed. It’s a murder mystery and a legal thriller that you can watch again and again; because it has no real resolution, you can see or consider something new in it each time you view it. It’s one of my favorite films. I really have no idea whether Claus von Bülow tried to kill his wife in reality; it may be that the truth is unknowable, perhaps even to him. Reversal of Fortune is a rare film in that it’s comfortable with moral uncertainty. Life is sometimes complicated. Movies shouldn’t be afraid to reflect that.

The poster for Reversal of Fortune is presumably copyright (C) 1990 by Warner Brothers Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube links embedded here.
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4 Comments

  1. I absolutely must see this film. The gray areas of law and medicine are quite fascinating, and this film must demonstrate that in spades. I can’t believe that this is based on an actual case. I really agree with and like the last three sentences in your post. Movies can be a reflection of reality and can challenge our beliefs, allowing us to grow as individuals. Thanks so much for bringing this film to the blogathon!

  2. I’ve only seen the middle of this film, but your review is prompting me to see it in its entirety. Jeremy Irons is FA-BU-LOUS in this role. He’s perfect as a man who may/may not be guilty. I’m going to try to stream this film on the weekend. Thanks!

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