Under the Volcano

| January 16, 2012 | 0 Comments

Over the holiday season I had a chance to sit down and read Malcolm Lowry’s acclaimed novel Under the Volcano. Full of modernist literary verse and allusion, the book is by far the most difficult I’ve ever read. After finishing the novel, I came across a trailer for John Huston’s 1984 adaption. Revisiting his film noir classic The Asphalt Jungle not too long ago, I was excited to see how the versatile director adapted the literary classic.
In Under the Volcano, we follow the alcoholic ex-British consulate, Geoffrey Firmin (aptly known as “The Consul”); his estranged wife, Yvonne; and his half-brother, Hugh, the man behind their separation. Set in Quantehetec (the Aztec name for Cuernavaca), the three are stuck in a love triangle over the Mexican “Day of the Dead”.
Bent on saving her marriage and rescuing her husband from his addiction, Yvonne returns to Quantehetec. Finding the Consul finishing off the previous evening in a local bar, Yvonne does her best to forget the past and win back her husbands affection. Though when musician turned reporter Hugh arrives, the tension weighs on Geoffrey stronger than any drink and disrupts the couples reunion. To distract himself from dwelling in antiquity, the Consul drunkenly guides Hugh and Yvonne through the villages of Mexico.
As the day pours on, the Consul’s thoughts become increasingly seized by drink; something he literally keeps on hand as most stops on their journey happen to be cantinas. A war between life and death wages in his soul of whether to return to his wife or content himself with alcohol. While Yvonne wishes to help her husband with his struggle, Hugh’s prejudice of living in his brother’s shadow leaves him indifferent. In fact, if the Consul were out the picture, Yvonne may turn to him. So the question stands: Will the Consul be able to save himself from the alcohol?*
Albert Finney, as the tequila soaked Geoffrey Firmin, is worth the 2+ hours you spend with the film. In the first thirty minutes I felt my vision and Finney’s vision of Lowry’s protagonist were much different. Thankfully, after Finney drapes himself in Firmin’s infamous white suit, the actor and character meet. Both Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Andrews (The Scarlet Pimpernel, truly) also work quite well as supporting cast members in the film. Though Bisset looks and plays the part well, she isn’t given much speaking time. Regardless, she makes her presence felt in each scene as she suffers with her husband. Andrews, who also looks and plays his part as the English school lad turned cowboy, works better physically than emotionally. His performance during the bull fight is a bit campy, but fun.
Much like Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, Huston’s Under of Volcano certainly makes its literary counterpart easier to digest. With a moving camera, the director captures the drunken misadventures of Geoffrey Firmin; a good idea that only sometimes pays off. Luckily, the film occasionally portrays the vivid imagery, comedy and literary allusion that fills the novel, which in itself is a stand alone accomplishment.
By the end of Huston’s film, we, like our main character, are ready for the end. It’s easy to see why an audience would not favor this film. It’s also easy to see why fans of the novel would not enjoy this film. Huston and screenwriter Gary Gallo adapt too many off-kilter moments from the novel while stripping bare of Lowry’s elegant prose, making the product, in the end, a decently entertaining mess.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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