A review of John Huston’s 1984 film, Under the Volcano, by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, June 13, 1984. Albert Finney gave a brilliant performance, filled with pathos, as well as humor…
By the time Malcolm Lowry had finished filling Under the Volcano with ”signs, natural phenomena, snatches of poems and songs, pictures, remembered books and films, shadowy figures appearing, disappearing, and reappearing,” according to Douglas Day, Mr. Lowry’s biographer, the book ”finally became not a novel at all but a kind of monument to prodigality of vision.” Certainly it evolved, as Mr. Lowry expanded his short story of the same name into the 1947 novel, into one of the most haunting and difficult works of modern fiction.
That this densely allusive work is also tantalizingly cinematic has made it an Everest of sorts, from the film maker’s standpoint. The book, aside from an opening chapter that dissolves into flashback, spans only a 24-hour period (the Day of the Dead, in November 1938) and involves few principal characters: Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic former British Consul living in a small Mexican town; Yvonne, the Consul’s estranged wife, who has just returned to him, and Hugh Firmin, Geoffrey’s rakish young half-brother, with whom Yvonne has had an affair.
This would seem to make the book manageable in cinematic terms, especially since two of the characters have film-related backgrounds, and since Mr. Lowry himself, having attempted to work in Hollywood, even relies on cinematic devices from time to time. Yet Under the Volcano contains so little clear, external action and is so deeply internalized by the Consul’s fevered imaginings that a true and coherent screen equivalent is unimaginable.
John Huston, whose film of Under the Volcano opens today at Cinema I, has attempted it anyhow, in a film that is especially impressive for the courage, intelligence and restraint with which it tackles an impossible task. The film’s limitations are readily apparent: it hasn’t sufficient scope to use a day in the Consul’s life, as the novel does, to convey everything about the man’s consciousness and to offer a vision of the land in which he is dying. What it can do, and does to such a surprising degree, is to bring the characters to life and offer fleeting glimpses into the heart of Mr. Lowry’s tragedy.
Drunkenness, so often represented on the screen by overacting of the most sodden sort, becomes the occasion for a performance of extraordinary delicacy from Albert Finney, who brilliantly captures the Consul’s pathos, his fragility and his stature. Alcoholism is the central device in Mr. Lowry’s partially autobiographical novel. (The author, like the Consul, was capable of drinking shaving lotion when nothing more potable was at hand.) Yet the Consul’s drinking is astonishingly fine-tuned, affording him a protective filter while also allowing for moments of keen, unexpected lucidity. Mr. Finney conveys this beautifully, with the many and varied nuances for which Guy Gallo’s screenplay allows.
For instance, when the exquisite Yvonne (played elegantly and movingly by Jacqueline Bisset) reappears in Cuernavaca one morning, she finds her ex-husband in a cantina, still wearing his evening clothes. He turns to gaze at her for a moment, pauses briefly, and then continues talking as if nothing had happened. Seconds later, he turns again and looks at Yvonne more closely, still not certain whether or not this is a hallucination. It takes a long while for the fact of Yvonne’s return to penetrate the different layers of the Consul’s inebriated consciousness, and Mr. Finney delineates the process with grace and precision, stage by stage. At other times, and in other degrees of drunkenness, his Consul is capable of anything from mischievous wit to sudden panic to the too-careful syntax of someone speaking as if trying to walk a straight line.
The political foreboding of Mr. Lowry’s novel — the hints of the coming world war, and the Consul’s eventual martyrdom at the hands of Fascist thugs — is less fully captured. The same can be said for the religious and mystical aspects of Mr. Lowry’s work. Mr. Huston sounds all these notes, to be sure, and includes many of the book’s key symbols; the white horse, the twin volcanos and ”The Hands of Orlac” are all here, for anyone who cares to notice. But he refrains from forcing the viewer to grapple excessively with imagery that, in a film of less that two hours’ time, borders on being bewildering and cannot help but go largely unexplained.
Daring as it is to have brought Under the Volcano to the screen in this faithful but incomplete form, Mr. Huston has done so without making compromises in the process. He appears to have made exactly the film he wanted to, a serious work rather than an entertainment of universal appeal. To the considerable extent that it succeeds, it owes a great deal to the warmth and humanity contributed by the actors.
That is especially true of Mr. Finney and Miss Bisset, who make credible the strange story of the Firmins’ marriage, and of Anthony Andrews, suitably callow and flamboyant as Hugh. Even the minor characters are strongly drawn, particularly the ”Brit” (played by James Villiers) who wonders why the Consul is taking a nap in the middle of the road, and who rouses Firmin to a few minutes’ worth of arch-Britishisms (”Awfully decent of you, old chap!” the Consul gaily declares). It was a witty scene of Mr. Lowry’s, and it has been preserved here perfectly.