Nowak (Jeremy Irons) suddenly remembers that he must get back to the flat he and his co-workers are remodeling (it is cheaper to send Polish laborers to London to do the job than hire British workers), and he must get back fast. He breaks into a run along the Sunday-quiet London street, unpopulated save for a solitary man walking serenely in Nowak’s direction. When the man spots Nowak coming his way he stutter-steps to try and dodge him, then plants his feet and covers himself in terror. When Nowak runs past him, the man looks up in confusion, hesitates for a moment, then begin to run in the same direction Nowak is running, and goes out of the frame, and out of the movie….

Welcome to the world of Moonlighting, the strange and wondrous new film by Polish émigré Jerzy Skolimowski. As all good directors do in their good movies, Skolimowski creates a cinematic landscape that is all-of-a-piece; everything that happens in Moonlighting is connected to everything else that happens: the tone of the performers stays beautifully controlled, the visual style remains consistent (and consistently right), etc. The funny thing about Moonlighting is that while Skolimowski’s style is perfectly realized, the world he presents to us is anything but—it’s ready to fly off in all directions. Lean a ladder up against a wall, it will fall back again; rest your head against a window for a second, it will swing open; let your dog cross the road at the wrong moment, he will encounter a surly cat who starts to hiss suspiciously (how did Skolimowski direct that?). Skolimowski’s London is an arena of nervous people and bizarre happenstance, and a place in which Nowak is at quite a loss—at first.

Shakespeare wrote some words for Hamlet that might apply to Nowak, too: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!” Poor Nowak. He’s the only one of the four workers who speaks English, and thus must deal with the day-to-day survival of the group, and their relations with the British world, by himself. Then he starts worrying about his wife back in Warsaw, and whether or not she might be dallying with his Boss, the man whose house Nowak is renovating.

And then, the time comes out of joint altogether: Nowak discovers, via an uncompletable telephone call, that the government coup of December 1981 has just taken place, and there are no means of communicating with Poland (imperturbable Cockney telephone operator: “There’s been a milit’ry cooo“). Nowak decides not to tell the men; he wants them to concentrate on getting the job done. Meanwhile, the world—and maybe Nowak, too—appears to be coming apart at the seams.

Skolimowski proceeds to fashion a fable that sets Nowak’s embrace of dictatorship (he begins to rule the men to the point of locking them into the flat, and engages in some hair-raising shoplifting to support them when he runs out of money) against the oppression going on in his country. What you may remember even more than this well-spun theme is the way Skolimowski peppers the story with flashes of the absurd—even with Skolimowski’s ultimately serious purpose, this is a diabolically funny movie—and the way these little outbursts seem to indicate a planet that may be starting to slip a few degrees on its axis.

You will also remember Jeremy Irons as Nowak, from his hound’s face, with disappointment, uncertainty, and determination carved into it, to his goofy farewell from a hardware store as a defeated man: “Byee.” Skolimowski and Irons have taken a brilliant parable and pushed it off the deep end—and they’ve come up triumphant.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

A great film, curiously undervalued now. Or at least under-known. With this movie, Skolimowski, director of the amazing Deep End, seemed poised for a good run, yet it never ignited. Or maybe he just preferred to go his own odd way. This film is delicate and biting, and flounces along in its own very specific way. Hurrah for Jeremy Irons for spotting that and getting on board.

Moonlighting‘s spot on my top ten of 1982 revealed here.

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