Picks and Pans Review: Under the Volcano

updated 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Despair is not exactly a surefire subject for a summer movie. Still, director John Huston has fashioned something quite extraordinary from Malcolm Lowry's acclaimed 1947 novel about a British ex-consul trying to drink himself to death in Cuernavaca in 1938. The book was basically the consul's interior monologue, the action being confined to one 24-hour period—Nov. 1, Mexico's Day of the Dead. The film also holds to that structure, a liability Huston turns into an asset. After a 1982 mismatch with the moppets of Annie, Huston, at 77, is back in full vigor. This time he's at home with the material. Huston has lived and worked in Mexico (his Treasure of the Sierra Madre was shot there). He knows its ways, and he understands the consul from the inside. To Huston, the diplomat's drinking is heroic, an act of retaliation against himself, his wife's infidelity with his brother and a decadent civilization rushing toward war. Huston imbues the film with a firebrand's fervor. The consul is a roaring drunk—funny, infuriating, touching, but never pathetic. It's the best role of Albert Finney's career, and he seizes it with passion. In one brilliant, unnerving scene, Finney lets loose his demons in a soul-destroying torrent of words. This is a master actor's performance. Anthony (Brideshead Revisited) Andrews is a bit too stiff-upper-lip as the brother; Jacqueline Bisset makes the wife a figure of strength and beauty. But the film belongs to Finney and Huston, who play it like the fulfillment of a life's ambition. Even when Guy Gallo's screenplay falters (there is too much self-conscious metaphor), Finney and Huston make Under the Volcano poetic, powerful and richly rewarding. (R)

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