Jerzy Skolimowski's "Moonlighting" is an outstanding achievement in many respects. Not only does it contain one of the most fulfilling performances that has ever been put to the screen, but it also serves as a political allegory, a smartly-told drama, and a unique exercise in creating suspense.
On the surface, the story is rather simple: sometime in the early 80's, during the political turmoil that was occurring in Poland, a group of Polish workers emigrate to London to renovate an apartment for their boss. They have no working permits, so they have to do their job with as much secrecy as possible. When Novak (Jeremy Irons), their English-speaking foreman, discovers that military law has been declared in their homeland, he tries to keep it a secret until they are allowed back into the country.
This may not seem like much of a story compared to most modern thrillers. There are no police out to get Novak and his men, nor are there any political opponents out to assassinate them. They are simply there to do their job, and Novak has to make sure they do it effectively and on time. Small but crucial subplots develop out of this: in order to feed himself and his men, Novak has to fake receipts for food (due to the limited amount of money they brought with them), and there are several scenes where he tries to get past the clerks at a grocery store with a Christmas turkey. He also has to buy them clothes and fulfill some of their material demands. On top of that, he also begins to develop fears and worries about his wife back home, including the suspicion that his boss may be having an affair with her. As the story progresses, Novak's money runs lower and his fear and paranoia grows stronger.
Because he is the only one of them who can speak English, Novak is the only one who can communicate with the outside world. But he is also very manipulative, and serves as a symbol of a government that misled their people and kept them ignorant of many of their own problems. It is interesting to see how Skolimowski develops sympathy for poor Novak; for all his intelligence, he is still nothing more than a pawn in the hands of a corrupt government. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost and faking his knowledge of his whereabouts. It would have been difficult to make this film convincing had the lead role not been played to perfection, but Jeremy Irons does it with more grace and skill than any other actor possibly could. Much of his performance is spent in narration, subtly explaining his growing confusion and terror. There are several moments where he keeps a perfectly straight face while rambling on in his head about the grave situation he is in. His performance here holds its own in a year that also included Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie," Ben Kingsly in "Gandhi," Gerard Depardieu in "Danton," Paul Newman in "The Verdict," Jurgen Prochnow in "Das Boot," and Jack Lemmon in "Missing."
Like Andrej Wajda (who made "Man of Marble" and "Danton"), Jerzy Skolimowski was an outspoken critic of Poland's communist regime. Curiously, he wrote the script in only a little over a day, and the whole production of the film took only a matter of months. Furthermore, the three Polish workers accompanying Novak in the story were actual Polish emigrants living (legally) in Skolimowski's home at the time military law was declared. "Moonlighting" won a well deserved screenplay award at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
This film is on video, but I do not think it is still being circulated. I hope they re-release it on video or DVD someday.