IN MOONLIGHTING, POLISH DIRECTOR Jerzy Skolimkowski distills from the quotidian black-and-white headlines of political upheaval a pure narrow gray band of personal experience. The subject--four Poles stranded in London during the imposition of martial law naturally invites an impassioned ideological treatment, but Skolimkowski's film is, on the surface, politically devoid. Instead we are given nearly flawless meditation on exile from an interior perspective.
Nowak (Jeremy Irons), a young Pole, arrives in London from Warsaw in December, 1981, accompanied by three workers. Sent by a rather shadowy figure ("the Boss"), presumably high-placed in the political elite, the four men come to London for a month to privately renovate one of the Boss's townhouses.
The only one of the four to speak English and to be educated. Nowak stands apart from the rest of the group. Their only link to the outside world while they're in England. Nowak becomes the defacto leader. Throughout the film, the workers speak among themselves in Polish. Skolimkowski has wisely refrained from using subtitles, interpolating instead a spare, running monologue by Nowak. Through this technique, his interior state and isolation become almost palpable.
In the opening scene at Heathrow Airport, his dual isolation in subtly apparent. When dealing with the vaguely threatening customs officials, he is like an intense, caged animal: when dealing with his helpless companions, he is like a slightly arrogant animal trainer. His comment about the British--"I can speak their language--this is why the Boss sent me--but I don't know what they really mean"--equally applies to his relationship with the workers. As they first enter the empty house. Nowak slowly sets up his own order: "I made it clear to them, no smoking. I hate the smell of cigarettes," he says.
At first, the work proceeds smoothly. With the men busy knocking down walls and building new ones. Nowak exercises a firm yet detached control over them. An amusingly ironic scene comes early on, when the men pay their first visit to the rather seedy local supermarket. Their eyes light up responding to the seeming utopia and their hands push the empty shopping carts with clumsy eagerness. The suspicious glances of the shoppers and salespeople, the sudden arrest of a shoplifter the clicking video cameras at every aisle--all combine into a grosteque echo of a totalitarian state.
One day, when attempting to call his wife Anna. Nowak finds out from the tinny operator's voice that all lines to Poland have been cut, because of a "military coup" (i.e. martial law.) Later, he first sees pictures of the military tank and checkpoints through the window of a television rental store, where all the sets are tuned to the same station. This startling, almost surreal image of history fragmented into ghostly slivers of flickering light illuminates the protagonist only distantly.
Since Nowak is the only one who can read and listen to English news, the other workers have no idea of what is happening. In a scene which more than any other typifies Nowak's aloofness and isolation, he goes down to tell them of the news. When he arrives, they are sneaking a drag on a cigarette in a shadowy room. Consequently, he fails on his mission: "All I could say was, who smoked?"
Never appearing to reflect on the situation in Poland. Nowak only says. "I must concentrate on work. I must drive them harder." His apolitical and self-centered character severs him from the pulse of his homeland, and ironically, from England too. In the opening scene at the airport, the heretofore businesslike passport checkers inquisitively asks him if he belongs to Solidarity. He replies a hurried "no," commenting ironically. "That was the only true answer I gave."
The film then fluidly portrays the deterioration in Nowak's and his coworkers' position in the British society. The renovation stumbles across innumerable difficulties, the storekeepers and neighbors grow considerably colder to the workers, and the money starts running out, with little hope of obtaining any more. In a black-market-like situation. Nowak unexpectedly begins shoplifting to keep his workers pacified and fed. Then by using the incentive of extra food to drive them harder, he assumes an increasingly authoritarian role. Especially telling is the way in which Nowak channels and fundamentally alters the worker's reality, much like a totalitarian regime. For example, on their way to a hardware store, he rips down all the Solidarity posters before his companions can see them. He even goes so far as to alter the time on his watch to fool the workers into a 20-hour work day.
THE CHARACTER OF NOWAK is the center of Moonlighting, with the others merely secondary. Wish only the little dialogue and only spare interior monologue Jeremy Irons managed to capture and delineate every nuance of his character's brooding intensity. An equally superb performance is that of writer-director Skolimkowski. Conceived and completed in one month. Moonlighting shows a rare combination of white hot inspiration and totally lucid artistic control. Every scene, from the opening to the remarkable closing image is effective and forms a part of considered whole. The almost documentary like cinematography captures the dark visual textures and somber Irony of the story.
Moonlighting is not only intense and austere, but also consistently gripping and moving a vision of the breakdown and isolation of one individual in the larger context of today's political breakdown. The movie is also helpless, because its context never overwhelms the content, and politics remains secondary to personal concerns.