One of the films selected for the Midnight Screenings section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival schedule, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Prayer Before Dawn thrusts us into the midst of a Thai prison and never holds back in its brutal portrayal of life behind bars.
The subject of the film is the real life tale of Billy Moore, an English boxer who finds himself locked up in a Thai jail that is unrelenting and a far cry from a normal life. Having spent his life in the boxing ring, Billy soon finds that even his grit and determination that he possesses in the ring may not be enough to survive this hellish of places. With a clear hierarchy within the inmates, crooked guards all around and a heightened sense of danger lurking, Billy struggles with both his addiction to heroin and fitting into this place riddled with unhinged individuals. When the opportunity arises to train again and do what he loves, it may be the only thing that can save Billy from truly breaking.
A Prayer Before Dawn could have easily fallen down the trap of being one of those prison dramas that sugar coats the scenario of being incarcerated and becomes a watered down version of real life events that quickly becomes cliched and all too familiar. Thankfully, this is one of those tales that remains honest, unflinching and striking for the majority of its runtime, creating a powerful and engaging cinematic experience that is truly biting. Of course, there are some familiar tropes that cannot be avoided, leaving some moments as somewhat familiar for those having watched similar properties, but ultimately it is an accomplished piece of filmmaking that strikes powerfully at each opportunity that arises.
Core to the success of the film is leading man Joe Cole, a familiar face for any Peaky Blinders fans out there. Cole embodies real life figure Billy Moore with the utmost of ease, bulking up to a staggering physique and adapting a Scouse swagger and tough-as-nails approach for the Englishman dropped into a place where he knows none of the language and is a target for the most hardened of inmates. Filling with rage to present a truly imposing figure at crucial moments, Cole is believable in his portrayal of a man who has very little but yet is passionate about those things he does have. It’s affecting, strong stuff from Cole and essentially drives the film in to really hammer home the dire circumstances of this man’s overall situation.
Impressive too is director Sauvaire’s orchestrating of the film as a whole. His capturing of the film’s fight sequences oozes brutality and keeps a rough edge that is required for such a drama. Close-up shots of the prevailing bloodshed help to keep command of Billy’s rough-edged life and never does it feel as though we are watching a story that is fabricated or over-sold. Helpful too is the maintained darkness in the film’s presentation, from the tone of the complete film to the colour pallet, a mixture of dark, dingy and over-crowded cell rooms and spotlit prison yards battered by harsh weathers and surrounded by the threat of barbed wire.
Where A Prayer Before Dawn does falter though is in its indulgence with spreading the story out on a longer runtime than is necessary. There is little to doubt that we find ourselves invested rather quickly in Billy’s story but by a particular moment in the film’s second act we feel as though a conclusion can be met only for the film to continue. This elongation rather takes a slight shine off the entire experience, with the runtime dragging from that point onwards and leaving a brief moment of displeasure to linger.
That aside, A Prayer Before Dawn is an impressive and biting experience that rarely holds back in its depiction of life inside a hellish Thai prison and the pressures that come with it. Leading star Joe Cole portrays his battered and bruised character with great emotional poise and ensures that this is a drama filled with plenty to talk about. Not quite that striking knockout of a film but still one that lasts until the final bell.