Writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski’s tight little drama has been badly neglected since 1982, hard to find on any format. Written in a day, Moonlighting features a script that won the screenplay prize at Cannes, and a big part of the film’s appeal is that it deals with a subject matter torn from the headlines at the time; the Communist take-over of Poland in 1981, and the declaration of martial law.
It features Jeremy Irons in an early, but substantial role as Nowak, a Polish gang-master who brings a group of non-English speakers to work on a luxurious town-house in London. The film starts with a neat joke, in which we see a woman hesitantly reading aloud a customs declaration notice in English, then relax as she reads the same text in her native Polish; she’s employed to hep keep people like Nowak (Irons) out of the country, but he manages to get them past security and into the UK. We don’t find out much about Nowak’s team beyond their names; they are the pay-load he hopes to deliver to a better life.
Britain in 1981 looks pretty hellish here, with randoms walking the dark streets, strangers thieving your hard-earned goods, tatty supermarkets advertising 5p off a jar of Branston Pickle, a hideous glimpse into a Wrangler jeans shop, and a general gloom that Nowak ignores to think of what he’ll do with the cash he hopes to earn. But things take a different turn around the 30 minute mark when Nowak, peering in the window of a Granada tv rental shop because their home television is broken, sees a news broadcast showing the take-over of his beloved homeland. It seems like only yesterday Nowak, his girl and his boss were enjoying a Tina Turner concert in Poland, and enjoying her subversive teasing of the government’s restrictions via her song titles; not any more.
Nowak decides to hide all evidence of Polish strife from his team, to ensure they complete the job on time. So he hides newspapers, tears down posters in the street, and makes sure that the language barrier stays up. But there’s a timely political parable here about the universal nature of corruption, showing how Nowak’s good motives lead to lies, deception and a loss of trust between him and his men. Irons’ matinee-idol looks make him an odd choice for a jobbing electrician, but with his thin moustache and anxious manner, he’s great as Nowak and the scenes in which he struggles with a rigorous case-load of shoplifting assignments are agonisingly done. There are two brilliant visuals when scenes boil over then go to a theatrical black out, the first when Nowak tears a light-bulb from a fitting, the second when he smashes a television which seems to have brought a photograph of his beloved Anna to life.
Moonlighting isn’t a film that’s been widely seen, but here it pops up on Amazon’s streaming service. You’ve probably not seen it or heard much about it, but for the price of a cup of posh coffee, it’s a welcome reminder of the kind of political, hard-edged, intelligent movies that used to be made in Britain and elsewhere. Channel 4 seem to specialise in persuading young people to take part in nude game-shows in 2020; it’s hard to believe that they once financed such thoughtful ventures as these, although this is likely to the one which will endure. This is a great little film, starting a fish-out-of-water comedy, ending as stark political tragedy; it’s the little people just trying to make a buck that are truly damaged by ideological machinations.