Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Starring: Joe Cole, Panya Yimmumphai, Pornchanok Mabklang, Vithaya Pansringarm
Words – Joe H
Based on the international bestselling memoir of the same name, A Prayer Before Dawn tells the true story of Billy Moore, a young boxer from Liverpool who is imprisoned in Thailand for drug offences.
We are introduced to Billy (played by Joe Cole) as he is preparing for a fight – it’s a ceremony like process, quiet, calm, patient, completely at odds with what’s to come.
We see following this his life is spent between Muay Thai fights and drug use, existing less in the tourist side of Thailand but more of its dark underbelly.
His life changes with an arrest at his home – as we next see Billy upon his arrival at prison.
He stands out as he enters, unable to speak Thai he is shepherded through processing and tries to understand instructions through the actions of others.
He enters his cell, there’s around 30 inmates in a room not big enough for half that, and he’s immediately singled out, put through a kind of hazing for new arrivals as the inmates test him.
It’s clear he has to tread carefully, he’s at the mercy of those around him as they make painfully clear one night against another inmate.
Through the corruption of guards and rife drug use in the prison he is able to feed his drug habit, paying his way through the prison currency of cigarettes, on some level ingratiating himself with some of those around him through shared drug use, but the threat posed by other inmates never leaves.
He discovers a separate unit in the prison where inmates train in Muay Thai (the national sport of the country), he manages to take a place with them to train, which becomes both an outlet for the stress of prison life and a fight against his own personal demons.
He makes an impression, as the prison warden offers him the opportunity to fight in competition against a fighter from another prison (tournaments in the Thai prison system have been an annual fixture for many years), with the time leading up to this fight becoming a test of his resolve.
At no point in the film, is any of the Thai language subtitled – this was a bold decision but absolutely the right one, through this we are made to feel right there with our main character, feeling out of place and intimidated in this harsh and unforgiving environment.
The fight scenes are exhaustingly bruising – there’s no fancy editing, with a camera person actually in the ring with the fighters, you feel right there in the ring with them as they exchange blows.
Comparative elements could be drawn to films such as the French prison drama A Prophet – a raw, brutal story of prison life, and with one of the highlights of 2018 so far in You Were Never Really Here – at times largely dialogue-free and portraying a temperamental mental state, with an evocative soundtrack that isn’t overused, with the sound of the environment cutting through moments of silence and acting just as much as part of the film’s score.
However with this film being based on a true story, there’s added weight here – being filmed in an actual Thai prison with a cast of real inmates.
The strength of this film rests on the performance of its lead actor, Joe Cole, who has previously been seen on screen as the headstrong drummer in the ill-fated punk rock band in Green Room, and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
When actors in the early stages of their career take on a role that pushes them to a physical and mental limit it can be a defining moment – Tom Hardy in Bronson, Michael Fassbender in Hunger (each being standout prison dramas), you can really see what potential there may be.
Joe Cole’s performance is worthy of all the recognition it receives and deservedly should lead to more interesting roles for this promising young actor.
This film is a visceral and emotionally raw drama through a journey of self-acceptance and redemption, and when it comes to looking back at 2018 should absolutely be considered one of the best films of the year.