'Peaky Blinders' actor Joe Cole steps into the ring for his big screen lead debut
Film review: 'A Prayer Before Dawn' is a violent and brutal watch
If the genre “boxing film” makes you think of epic tales of personal struggle and glorious salvation in the vein of Rocky, you may be in for a bit of a shock when you watch Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s brutal drama A Prayer Before Dawn.
The film transposes the template of a boxing movie into Thailand’s famously harsh prison system. There’s certainly plenty of struggle for our anti-hero, Joe Cole’s heroin-addicted amateur boxer Billy Moore, but his struggle to stay alive inside one of the world’s worst prisons is constant. His salvation, such as it is, doesn’t come wrapped in a star-spangled banner and earning the adulation of all, but in winning enough fights to earn himself a slightly less horrific cell and make enough money to keep buying cigarettes and drugs inside.
The film is a gritty affair, often using first person point of view and suffocating close-ups to take you right into the overcrowded Klong Prem prison and right into the sweat-drenched ring with Moore. Every splash of blood, drop of sweat and crunching blow seems to happen right in front of your eyes, perhaps even behind your eyes and, in contravention of every boxing movie convention going, there is no uplifting montage scene of Billy’s ever-improving training regimen. Billy, in fact, seems on many levels to be a fairly rubbish boxer, whose main talent in the ring is having the ability to take so much of a beating that he ends up standing for longer than his opponent.
The film won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s raw and lo-fi, though a glossy, high-end movie about life in the infamous “Bangkok Hilton” would seem something of a non-sequitur. There’s very little dialogue to speak of, and much of what there is comes in, intentionally unsubtitled, Thai, delivered by a cast of former Thai prisoners. Billy is, after all, a stranded Brit in an alien environment, and Sauvaire is determined that the audience should join him.
You have to pay attention to fully appreciate Sauvaire’s film, violence, drug taking, sexual assault and all. The movie isn’t so much a narrative as a two-hour swirl of confusion, isolation and chaos, punctuated by frequent, brutal fights both in the ring and outside it. You may well feel like you’ve done a few rounds in the ring with a Thai boxing inmate yourself when you reach the end, but ride it out. There’s no medal for enduring this gruelling cinematic encounter, just like there’s no medal for Billy each time he faces down another opponent in the prison’s showpiece boxing ring, but you’ll be glad you did.