The comment “Someone has to suffer for the sins of the people,” establishes the probationary scapegoat theme that runs through REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. This well crafted drama reveals the intricate human frailties involved in the famous Claus von Bulow case, where von Bulow was initially found guilty of the attempted murder of his fabulously wealthy wife, Sunny, and then acquitted on appeal thanks to the dedicated work of his attorney.
Flying over the vast mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, the camera swoops in through the hospital corridors and finally rests, focusing in on comatose, bed-ridden Sunny von Bulow sustained by tubes and hospital personnel. Using the techniques of flashback and narration, the comatose Sunny describes her December 27, 1979 coma, the subsequent December 20th coma a year later, and the March 22, 1982 conviction of her beloved husband Claus.
The story shifts into dramatic gear as Von Bulow asks the famous Harvard Law School Professor, Alan Dershowitz, to handle his appeal. Von Bulow suggests that Sunny’s children from her first marriage framed him. Claus reveals Sunny’s spoiled discontent and her frequent use of drugs. Because of her strong will and the fact that she paid the bills, nobody tried to stop her.
Dershowitz is intrigued by the thought of taking an impossible case and enlists the aid of his best law students in an all out effort to overturn the conviction of this man whom everybody hates. Even though Dershowitz is committed to winning the appeal, he wonders whether or not his client is innocent. However, Dershowitz stresses that a person deserves the best legal representation possible so that he can have a fair and accurate hearing before being found innocent or guilty. His decision to take the case hinges on this truth, plus the fact that he thinks his client may have been railroaded by Sunny’s offspring, given the huge inheritance involved, and Dershowitz doesn’t want this tough case to become a bad law which will trip up more worthy defendants in the future.
On one level, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE deals with the impossibility of knowing the truth about the unknowable. Was von Bulow guilty of injecting his wife with a near-fatal dose of insulin? Was he framed by Sunny’s family? Or, did the miserably unhappy woman try to commit suicide? The filmmakers’ decision to address these questions through a time-shifting narrative with multiple points-of-view enhances their ambiguity and draws the viewer into the film’s overall intrigue.
At the film’s end von Bulow wins his acquittal, but Dershowitz cautions him: “The court has dismissed the legal charge against you, but you’ll have to deal with the moral charge on your own.” God will be the final Judge in von Bulow’s case in that day when he stands before the great tribunal, as all must: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ: that every one may receive the things done in the body, according to that he hath done” (II Corinthians 5:10).
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE is an extremely well-crafted film with a complex plot, a magnificent setting and great acting. One of the best courtroom dramas ever produced, the unique plot devices capture and hold the viewer’s attention, both emotionally and intellectually. Thus, the film incites youto think, while entertaining you with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Surprisingly, there is very little bad language. Superficially, at least, Claus is a gentlemen, who does not resort to obscenity, and the others follow suit, with only a few foul words scattered here and there in back ground conversation, or in exclamation. However, this is a real life drama, and the people are sinners. Thus, the subject matter is strong meat — adultery, drugs, deceit, fraud — all the problems of the human condition are magnified by the extreme wealth which allows these people unlimited leisure.
As Dershowitz points out, we have all done or wanted to do what Claus has done, and, in that sense, he is a scapegoat upon whom we can heap our sins. However, as Claus admits, he is not sinless, so his conviction does not satisfy the penalty which justice demands. Only Jesus, fully God and fully man, totally without sin, was a valid sacrifice for our sins. If only Claus and the others involved in this torrid case had come to know Him who is the propitiation for their sins, then this drama could have moved beyond pathos into the heart of Truth.
Numerous obscenities, very few profanities, and references to adultery.