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Moonlighting (1982)

Courtesy of Goldcrest Films International Ltd

Main image of Moonlighting (1982)
35mm, colour, 97 mins
DirectorJerzy Skolimowski
Production CompaniesMichael White, National Film Development Fund, Channel Four
ProducerMark Shivas
 Jerzy Skolimowski
ScreenplayJerzy Skolimowski
PhotographyTony Pierce-Roberts
MusicStanley Myers

Cast: Jeremy Irons (Nowak); Eugene Lipinski (Banaszak); Jiri Stanislaw (Wolski); Eugeniusz Haczkiewicz (Kudaj)

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Four Polish workmen renovate a house in London in December 1981. Only Nowak, the sole English speaker, knows about martial law being declared back home, and he hides this from his workmates in order to get the job finished.

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In December 1981, civil unrest provoked by Poland's populist Solidarity movement led to the imposition of martial law, sending shockwaves around the world. On 20 May 1982, the British film Moonlighting, directed by Polish émigré Jerzy Skolimowski, was premiered in Cannes. Written, financed, shot and edited in roughly four months, it is one of the fastest professional 35mm features ever made.

But the calm, controlled tone gives no hint of the rushed production, and despite being literally torn from the headlines, the film has hardly dated at all. Indeed, since Poland joined the European Union in May 2004 (unimaginable at the time the film was made), Polish workmen have become almost ubiquitous on British building sites.

Nowak (a remarkably convincing Jeremy Irons) is one of four Polish workmen renovating an expensive Kensington townhouse, owned by a corrupt Polish official. The only English speaker, Nowak negotiates with the outside world and manages the ever-dwindling budget - and he is also the only one to hear about the military clampdown. Realising that this will jeopardise the project, which he's determined to see through (he has a history of leaving things unfinished), he decides not to tell the others.

Much of the film is in unsubtitled Polish, which paradoxically lets us empathise with Banaszak, Wolski and Kudaj, trapped in a strange country whose language they don't understand. Although Nowak confides in us via voice-over, it is clear from his conversation with the sarcastic neighbour that his own grasp of English nuances (and not just linguistic ones) is less than perfect.

When his knowledge of events isolates him from his comrades as well, Nowak retreats into his own private world. Skolimowski pointed out that while he initially shoplifts out of necessity (unexpected building expenses having drastically affected the food budget), stealing becomes a psychological challenge, reassuring him that he can control at least some events when it's clear that his ability to manipulate his fellow workers is rapidly diminishing.

Skolimowski draws sly but barbed comparisons between Poland and Britain, both countries run by arrogant petty officials whose compassion is all but nonexistent. The film was made in the early years of the Thatcher administration (1979-90), and deftly sketches the then rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor. Although it lacks the fireworks of his earlier films (especially those made in his native Poland in the 1960s), Moonlighting may be Skolimowski's most perfectly realised achievement.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. News from Warsaw (4:20)
2. Christmas in London (3:28)
3. Meeting the manager (4:11)
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Irons, Jeremy (1948-)
Skolimowski, Jerzy (1938-)