Whether Dershowitz convinced himself of Von Bulow's innocence to assuage a possibly guilty conscience is a good question. Remember Dershowitz is the guy who said after the O.J. Simpson trial (he was one of Simpson's lawyers) that he didn't know whether Simpson was guilty or not. While that may be a good stance for a defense attorney, it is an insincere one for the public figure that Dershowitz has become.
Starring as Dershowitz is Ron Silver in an uneven performance that at times made me think of Gabe Kaplan doing a young and uncomedic Groucho Marx. I wonder if Dershowitz was entirely flattered.
Director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly 1987; Single White Female 1992) uses several points of view to tell the story, including a voice-over from Glenn Close's Sunny Von Bulow as she lies comatose, but also from recollections by Jeremy Irons' Claus Von Bulow. We see some scenes twice, colored by the differing points of view. This technique is entirely appropriate since what really happened is far from clear to this day. It is Claus Von Bulow's fortune that was reversed. Whether the first two juries or the third were right is something Schroeder leaves for the audience to determine.
But make no mistake about it: the heart of the movie is Jeremy Irons' Oscar-winning performance. His subtle artistry based on a deep conception (true to life or not) of the aristocratic and Germanic Claus allowed him to create a persona that is cold and aloft, yet somehow sympathetic. The contrast with Silver's Brooklyn-born hyper-energetic Dershowitz made for some good cinematic chemistry, although sometimes it came across like nice Jewish boy defends a vampire.
Glenn Close's flawless rendition of the idle, drug-befouled Sunny reminds us once again that she is a great actress. Unfortunately I don't think Schroeder spent as much time and energy as he should have with the people who played Dershowitz's law students. They seemed amateurish and unconvincing in just about every scene. And there were too many of them--law students, that is. Some distillation of intent, and more directorial guidance might have helped.
Nicholas Kazan's script has a number of good lines in it, not the least of which is this: Dershowitz: "You are a very strange man." Claus Von Bulow: "You have no idea." Also nice was Von Bulow's observation after they are seated in the restaurant and after the waiter has called him "Doctor" Von Bulow: "When I was married to Sunny, we never got this table. Now, two injections of insulin and I'm a doctor." Indeed it is partly Kazan's snappy, comedic and self-revelatory lines that humanize Claus Von Bulow's character and persuade us that he could very well be innocent.
While I like Dershowitz's self-serving style and his confidence, what I admire most about the man is his realistic conception of the defense attorney's role in our society and his idea of what makes a good lawyer; that is, a good lawyer is one who recognizes not only that every person deserves the best defense their resources allow, but that he himself deserves to defend those with the best resources.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)