The Invisible People: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting (1982)

Jeremy Irons stars in Moonlighting (1982)

Nowak is a man alone. He’s working in London, but officially he’s a nonentity. He has traveled from his native country of Poland along with three other men to do an under-the-table renovation on a flat in Kensington. No work visas — the men snuck their tools into the UK and were handed a pile of cash by the boss before they left for expenses.

At first things move right along schedule. As the foreman and the only one on the crew who speaks English, Nowak runs all the outside-world errands: buying the groceries and a color TV for the men to watch soccer, and arranging for weekly phone calls home on the pay phone down the street.

And since Nowak is the only one who understands English, he alone comprehends the news coming in on the BBC: Poland is now in the grips of martial law. All communication with the outside world has been suspended, and there are no flights in or out. Their money is running low, but now he can’t contact his boss in Warsaw for additional funds. Nowak has to keep it together, without any help and without the authorities in London finding out about the job. He must still finish the work on time, and keep his crew entertained and fed.

This is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting (1982). Jeremy Irons stars as Nowak in a peerless performance. Irons’s voice, still familiar despite his dexterous refashioning of those rich British tones into a calm Polish accent, is our constant companion, narrating both background details as well as Nowak’s momentary thoughts, fears, and joys as they occur. Just as he translates for the men a censored version of the news, he interprets for us in a calm voice-over the crew’s mounting frustration as the meals start to come out of cans and the weekly phone calls from Warsaw suddenly drop off. He’s also trying to navigate a metropolis that’s wholly alien to him. The neighbors in this posh district are unanimously hostile, whether because of the crew’s construction noise or because of his accent. Nowak admits, “I can speak their language but . . . I don’t know what they really mean.”

With no money to pay for entertainment or nights out, he begins to drive his men harder to finish the job by skewing their sense of time: “They’ve slept three hours. To make them feel better I’ll tell them it was five. The only watch that works now is mine.” But as the town house they’re renovating transforms from a firetrap with peeling wallpaper into a chic, elegant abode, Nowak’s resolve steadily deteriorates: “I chose those men because they were stupid; I thought I could control them. But I can’t; I’m weaker than they are.”

Everything in London becomes an increasing threat. A nosy neighbor is a potential police emissary. The men have to dump their construction debris under cover of night since they can’t pay for another refuse bin. A trip to the grocery store develops the suspense of a bank heist, as Nowak skillfully makes several return trips to the same shop and through a juggling of the receipts scores some extra food for his crew. Desperate for transportation, he steals a bicycle, only to return it out of nagging guilt several days later. Despite enduring the indignities of living on no money with nowhere to turn for help, he is desperate to retain his humanity. But it’s becoming a luxury he can no longer afford.

Polish émigré and writer-director Skolimowski does not leverage the crew’s situation to comment on the unfair economic conditions that drive folks to do illegal work in wealthy countries, or the ways in which real estate developers take advantage of undocumented workers. Doing so would presume that there are solutions for these issues — a right and a wrong that can be worked toward and achieved. Moonlighting allows no such utopian possibility. Skolimowski presents us with a wholly indifferent reality whose daily micro-horrors Novak must endure without complaint, using little more than his wits.

In a sense the film tells a minor story — a few stressful months in the life of one man in peril. It does not wring its hands or proselytize, which makes it in many ways all the more harrowing to watch. We may have pity for Nowak’s predicament, but he has none for himself. Never once does he ask, “Why me?” or “Why is this happening?”

He doesn’t have time. He’s got work to do.

This essay originally appeared on my site Sleeping All Day. For more essays about unusual films and interviews with folks in the movie-watching business, visit www.sleepingallday.com

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