Charming and well-acted, Breaking the Limits has a lot going for it but some flabby pacing and a few loose ends prevent it from really scaling the heights.
There are a surprising number of ex-drug addicts who go on to take up endurance sports. When listening to their accounts you notice some common themes. When you push your body to its outer limits you experience a euphoria that I am led to believe is not dissimilar to the experience that many feel when taking certain substances, just without the nasty life-ruining aftereffects. Something else that drug addicts and endurance athletes share is a compulsion to keep doing the same thing repeatedly. As a long distance runner myself, I can understand the strange and sometimes baffling appeal of deliberately putting oneself in a state of discomfort just to see how much discomfort you can tolerate. As the legendary ultra-runner Dean Karnazes put it, “there is magic in misery, just ask any runner”. Breaking the Limits explores this strange dichotomy and at the same time tells us a tale about a man who seemingly returned from the dead more than once and found redemption along the way.
Director Lukasz Palkowski’s (Gods, Rezerwat) biopic about World Iron Man champion Jerzy Gorski tells the story of a young man growing up in 70’s and 80’s Poland, where he lives with his mother and abusive father. He falls in love with the daughter of a local policeman and promptly gets them both hooked on heroin. After hitting rock bottom, Gorksi finds himself in rehab where he slowly starts to build himself up again, discovering a passion for running, cycling and swimming. Through force of will and a desire to be worthy of the right to parent his daughter, Gorski finds himself competing at the World Iron Man championships where he must face his demons once and for all.
There is very little that is new about the idea of a troubled young man finding a way through his difficulties by channeling his torment into a sport and emerging on the other side victorious and reborn; pretty much every single sporting biopic contains some form of this and we love them for it.
There is a lot to like about Breaking the Limits, which swept up several awards at the 2017 Polish Film Festival, including Best Film. Jakub Gierszal (Das Boot, Beyond Words) is electric as Gorski. His performance is controlled and subtle, never straying into over the top speechifying or overacting. He gives Gorski a charisma that is evident in every frame; even when he is hanging about a squat with a needle in his arm, there is something charming about him and you want him to succeed.
The color palette of this film is muted and understated. The music is just right and the 70’s-inspired guitar rock soundtrack during the training montage sequences manages to hit the right tone, stirring without being melodramatic.
The flaws in Breaking the Limits come from some of the pacing and a few narrative loose ends. It could be tighter, and the middle third, in particular, is a bit plodding. Much of Gorksi’s motivation centers around his desire to be a good father to his daughter yet we never really get the emotional payoff that seems to get set up here. Nor do we really get a resolution to the subplot that surrounds Gorski’s romance with the doctor who pieces him together (played very nicely by Kamila Kaminska whose credits include Love and Mercy, Diagnoza).
Overall, Breaking the Limits is an effective and charming sporting biopic that introduced me to a story I was unfamiliar with. The performances are great, and you really root for Gorski as he crosses the finish line, wins the championship, and puts his past behind him.