Moonlighting (2012) / Drama
MPAA rated: PG for language and brief nudity (would be PG-13 today)
Running time: 97 min.
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Eugene Lipinski, Jiri Stanislav, Eugeniusz Haczkiewicz, Denis Holmes, David Calder, Judy Gridley, Jenny Seagrove
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Screenplay: Jerzy Skolimowski
Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune, The Lion King) stars as Nowak, the English-speaking foreman of a quartet of Polish building contractors staying in England in December, 1981, covertly for cheap labor, despite their lack of permission to do so. Their task is to renovate one of the large apartments for a wealthy Polish businessman (Director Skolimowki (Essential Killing, Deep End) cast himself in the role), while staying under their very tight budget for tools, supplies, meals, entertainment, and everything else they might need. However, their four-week stay is extended somewhat when Nowak learns that martial law has been declared by the Soviets in Poland due to the burgeoning Solidarity movement. In order to keep his men from becoming despondent and concentrating on their work, Nowak does everything in his power to keep this news from the men, but he also has been cut off from his boss in Poland, and the money has ceased to come in. Under oppressive living and working conditions, Nowak ratchets up the men's work while doing everything he can to make ends meet, including things that can get them all into a great deal of trouble, while he also must contend with his own pressures and the maddening thoughts that keep him from focusing on the tasks at hand.
Moonlighting is Polish exile Jerzy Skolimowski's allegory on the Solidarity uprising, created as he resided in London during the time period the events took place, using the interplay between the Polish workers and Nowak as a metaphor for the Soviet/Polish Government/Polish worker relations. But one need not understand all of the political statements being made underneath the surface to appreciate the story at large, even if such knowledge does make it infinitely more complex and intriguing. It's a personal film above all else, and can be appreciated on many levels. Nowak's tactics with his men mirror the efforts of the Polish regime with its own people, to try to silence their dissident leanings through shielding them from the truth, controlling their news, placating them with entertainment and goods, while also working them to the bone for little pay.
It's a magnificent performance by Irons, who must speak mostly through looks and his collective thoughts given to us in a voiceover so that we might hear as he tries to keep his head, and his men, together. Given his lack of fluency with the Polish language, he is an odd choice, but so convincing in every other respect, that he emerges as a terrific fit for the complex role. Although he often crosses the line of the law and work ethics, his character is portrayed in a sympathetic light, having what he feels is the best intentions in mind for manipulating his men to do all of the things they need to do in order to get the job done. He also yearns for his beloved wife Anna (Seagrove, The Guardian), who he begins to fear may be the object of desire for the rich Pole at home that met them the day before his departure. Meanwhile, the other mostly silent men live day to day without much food, eating soup and drinking what passes for coffee out of old tin cans they use and reuse due to a lack of sufficient funds for basic necessities, and sleeping huddled on barren floors amid the dirt and debris of the claustrophobic workplace.
London of the time isn't portrayed as a safe haven for the Polish, but rather its own form of watchdog state, where people must steal in order to get by, including their own variety of homeless that roam the streets in search of whatever goods may be laying around to pilfer. It's a jittery, forbidding, and suspicious place, where the people are often cold and demanding, unwilling to bend many of the rules in order to accommodate foreigners. But Nowak learns how to use these rules of society to his advantage, especially as he must go on a stealing spree in order to work up enough sustenance and means to keep the men going.
As a film that showcases the often dirty job of leadership, which often involves keeping the public in charge ignorant for the purpose of a greater good, it is both a cynical and eye-opening work that strikes a resonant chord on how easily one can go from a benevolent overseer to a totalitarian. Moonlighting is a subtle piece, and it is possible for someone who goes in cold to not quite get the gist of the film. But keeping an open mind yields wonderful results, as the film is often quite funny in a less than showy way, and quite tense in between the moments of dark humor. It's an absurd piece, and sometimes surreal in its intent, but the same can also be said about life. Well worth seeking out for those who enjoy the odd, subtle and sublime.
©2012 Vince Leo