Those paying attention to the British box office top ten will have noticed something unexpected creeping in over the last few years, a hardy microflora springing up in between the usual mix of franchises by Disney and franchises by studios bought out by Disney. For the first time since the Bollywood breakthrough of the early 2000s, we’re seeing foreign language films achieve box office success outside the traditional support systems for subtitled movies in the UK. They don’t play the major festivals, they’re rarely screened for critics and they tend to bypass arthouse theatres in favour of strategically chosen multiplexes in cities with a suitably large population of the community they’re marketed to.
They’re Polish films, and their current success offers British audiences a rare chance to see what the mainstream output of a European country looks like. There are some points of connection with the Polish cinema you may already be familiar with: Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, the stars of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated Cold War, both turn up frequently. The terse, monochrome arthouse romance of Cold War is worlds apart from Kot and Kulig’s mainstream work, though. The most successful Polish director at the UK box office right now is Patryk Vega, whose films – Kobiety Mafii, Botoks, the Pitbull series (the most recent of which features Kulig) – are brash, punkish genre pieces that wear their BBFC 18 certificates like a badge of honour. Łukasz Palkowski’s Breaking the Limits, released on VOD by the Polish Film Club label, shares a lot of characteristics with these films – up to and including a supporting role for Kot.
The true story of Jerzy Górsky, who overcame drug addiction to become a triathlete, is the sort of triumph-over-adversity yarn any country’s film industry would be interested in. It’s very easy to imagine a British film being made about this; indeed, with music cues including Thin Lizzy and Queen, you wouldn’t even have to change the soundtrack. What is distinctive is the depiction of drug addiction, which is very much in keeping with the new toughness of Polish mainstream cinema. Górsky vomits blood, displays livid sores and bruises on his arm, and sees his fellow addicts cut their arms and stub cigarettes out on their hands in a painless opiate daze. Even when he gets to a treatment centre, there’s little tenderness on offer. The group leader casually refers to a service user who’s just killed himself as “weak”; when challenged on this, he shows Górsky deep scars on his wrists, laying claim to the moral authority of the victim and the hierarchical authority of the victimiser at once.
There is an obvious connection between the kind of endurance Górsky must show to beat his addiction and the kind of endurance he exhibits as an athlete, and Breaking the Limits wisely leaves it to the viewer to make that connection. For all the physical pain depicted the actual drama is mostly psychological, even introducing a double of Górsky who acts as the devil on his shoulder, egging him on to attempt suicide and tell him he’ll never achieve his dreams. It’s not a subtle device but it’s startling and effective, and allows Jakub Gierzał to play an interesting variation on his intense, introverted, rebellious Górsky.
“Not subtle but effective” could be a fair summation of the film as a whole. If the drug scenes are lent visceral power by Palkowski’s full-on approach, the final act sees him trying every tear-jerking trick in the inspirational sports movie book, playing Bartosz Chajdecki’s wailing stadium-rock guitar solos over Stallone-styled training montages. You may occasionally wish for a more sensitive take on addiction, or a more inventive take on the sporting biopic, but taken as a mainstream triumph-over-adversity film this is infinitely grittier and more deeply felt than most films of its kind. There’s a reason this stuff is selling tickets right now.