Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Just before Christmas in 1981, a government crackdown against the Solidarity labor movement closed Poland's borders and stopped all air travel and communications with the outside world. Martial law was declared and tanks rolled into the major cities. Watching the proceedings from his home in London, Polish writer (Knife in the Water) and director (The Shout, Deep End) Jerzy Skolimowski had an instantaneous brainstorm for a film, that he had shooting before the camera just sixty days later.
Moonlighting follows the curious misadventures of four Warwaw carpenters that fly to London just before the coup. Their leader Nowack (Jeremy Irons) is the only one who speaks a word of English; he does all the talking as they check through with their meager £1200 and luggage stuffed with crude tools. Nowak affirms that they plan to buy a car, are staying for thirty days, and will not take any paid or unpaid labor. The customs official smiles as they pass.
Nowak and his three friends are really in London to surreptitiously refurbish the Kensington town house of a wealthy Pole, 'the boss.' They essentially hide out in the house, quietly earning a wage that equals a year's pay back in Poland, but is only a quarter of what the boss would have to spend if he hired English labor. Things immediately begin to go wrong. Nowak's bicycle is stolen. A junk TV he buys breaks almost as soon as it is plugged in, leaving the foursome with no entertainment. He worries about the boss's attentions to his wife back home. A plumbing mistake blows Nowak's budget; to get by he begins shoplifting from the local market, a risky proposition at best. But things get worse when Nowak finds out about the coup in Poland. Because he must keep the men working, he says nothing about it. He makes excuses for why they can't phone home, attend church or leave the town house. He even tears down a few pro-Solidarity posters that pop up on the local walls, fearful that the men might see them. They grow resentful when Nowak talks about the necessity of giving up their bonus money, so that he can rent a floor sander.
Moonlighting is a brilliant examination of the sorry state of Poland at a time when Western Europe is thriving. Writer-director Skolimowski plays the barely-seen 'boss' back in Warsaw, a businessman with outside contacts that make him a king in the shriveled Polish economy. It's actually Skolimowski's flat that's being fixed up. The Poles are shocked by the wealth of goods on the shop shelves. Their biggest ambition is to be able to buy things, and Nowak loses their trust when he tells them they must wait to purchase cheap watches. He can't tell his comrades that he's stealing food for them. When Nowak steals a bicycle to replace the one that was stolen from him, Skolimowski makes a shrewd comment on de Sica's Bicycle Thieves: when everyone must steal to survive, who can claim moral superiority? The local businessmen are ruthlessly unforgiving and rude when he pays for services... although he steals a wholesale discount with a bogus card from his employer.
Nowack observes an illicit romance across the street, and worries about his wife back home, who said that she is 'having drinks' with the boss. He has one B&W photo of his wife, and fantasizes her image coming to life in the reflection of the broken television. Thirty days hiding out and lying to his compatriots take a toll. Nowak's voiceover (in English) breaks through occasionally, expressing the man's state of loneliness.
The politics come into play when we realize that Skolimowski's story is a metaphor for Poland under Communism. The economic situation is a wreck. Trying to please an unseen boss who doesn't share their poverty, Nowak must keep his men isolated and ignorant of the outside world so they won't revolt and stop working. He keeps them from attending church. He lies to them, keeps vital information from them and even censors their mail, all to keep faith with a boss who may be after his wife.
Skolimowski's earlier films have a sense of absurdity that Moonlighting sublimates into the endless weirdnesses of being a stranger in a strange land. Nowak speaks English but understands little because the Londoners use idiomatic expressions. As foreigners they're always suspect on some level. Nowak tries to strike up a conversation with a shop girl he admires, without success. He's a lousy negotiator, and is saved from a shoplifting arrest only through the timely intervention of another thief. When carolers show up at their door, the workmen shout Polish carols back at them until they leave -- it's the only way they can avoid tipping the kids.
If anything Moonlighting demonstrates that Eastern Europe is a worker's hell. The downtrodden Poles are more shallowly money-conscious and desperate to consume goods than we in the West. Nowak calls his comrades stupid when they're really in a state of ignorance. But when they get a chance to shop, they blow their meager funds on cheap merchandise. As for Nowak, he's so bitter that he takes a huge risk to steal a gift for his wife. Moonlighting also makes us sympathetic for people trapped on the wrong side of borders, immigration laws, work permits, all the legal things that insure the continuance of a status quo that favors the haves. When it's time to go home the boys barely have spare change in their pockets. In the middle of the night they roll four stolen shopping baskets across town to Heathrow Airport... a trek of six hours' duration.
Jeremy Irons is excellent in the movie, speaking English with a convincing accent and showing every bit of the tension and worry in Nowak's predicament. We're told that at least one of the amateur actors was a real workman hired to restore Skolimowski's own townhouse. The neighborhood people are brilliantly chosen, especially the lady manager at the grocery store so intent on proving Nowak's guilt. She's not a villain, as she's the only defense against the 'nice little ladies' that are collectively stealing the store blind. We recognize Nowak's girlfriend, seen only briefly... she's the lovely Jenny Seagrove of Bill Forsythe's Local Hero.
At first the film's ending is alarming. Will they get back to Poland, and if they do will they be any richer than when they left? What about Nowak's wife? The chaotic last scene would seem to be Jerzy Skolimowski's expression of disgust at the whole situation. 1
B2MP's Blu-ray + DVD of Moonlighting is a quality product from a very small company that has previously released good discs like The Puppetoon Movie. It's a quality product in every respect, with a handsome HD transfer and very clear audio. I previously saw Moonlighting thirty years ago on the old "Z Channel" cable TV experiment, and the transfer then was so dank that it was difficult to tell what Nowak was doing. We now see every detail as the workmen dig through walls and work in tight corners. This scan has rich colors, even given the film's realistic surface.
There is no scrimping on extras. Stanley Myers' music score is given its own isolated track, and the original trailer is present. B2MP has produced an alternate track with comments from star Jeremy Irons. It's not a full commentary, but Irons does give us his viewpoint on the movie. Then the recent star of Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant's Woman, Irons is proud to say that his interest in the movie was the wedge that allowed Skolimowski to find funding. Irons is impressed by the film's political brilliance as well -- it makes its points without a single verbal speech pro or con about Poland, the coup, or the conflicting '-isms.'
Even better is an excellent insert essay by Ewa Hanna Mazierska that sketches out the context for Moonlighting as a film and as a political statement. It's a learned, well reasoned piece of writing. Ms. Mazierska sketches interesting parallels between Communist Poland and England under Margaret Thatcher's policy of breaking unions, dismantling the welfare system and, "marrying the gospel of free market liberalism with organic patriotic Toryism."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Moonlighting Blu-ray + DVD
Supplements: Jeremy Irons comments, text essay, trailer, Isolated Score Track
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2015
1. Writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski started in Poland back in 1960, writing the impressive film Innocent Sorcerers. He has been busy as an actor as well. I love his cameo / bit part as the befuddled inventor of the English-to-Martian, Martian-to-English translating machine in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! "For dark is the suede that mows like a harvest."
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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