Joe Cole may not be an instantly recognisable name to a lot of people, but after watching him in A Prayer Before Dawn I would put money on you seeing a lot more of him in the very near future. Cole is mostly known for his role in Peaky Blinders as Johnny Shelby, but some of you may also recognise him from Green Room, Skins and the Hang the DJ episode of the ever-popular Black Mirror. His performance in this film might just be my favourite of 2018 thus far, and quite frankly it’s going to take a lot to remove that crown from his noggin.
A Prayer Before Dawn is based on the best selling memoirs of British boxer Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prison. In 2005 Moore moved to Thailand following stints in UK prisons for a combination of crimes, which include burglary and dangerous driving. Moore barely spoke Thai, so when he was arrested for gun offences and sent to ‘the worst prison in Thailand’ he struggled to keep out of trouble and knew fighting would be the only way to survive. Moore witnesses many horrors in prison, and at one point even tries to take his own life, but when he sees an opportunity to join the prison’s Muay Thai Boxing he realises that could be his way out.
What Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has directed here is nothing short of astonishing. A Prayer Before Dawn was filmed a real Thai prison and the majority of the people featured in the film are real inmates in said prison. The Muay Thai Boxers that Cole fights against are real champions. I knew none of this as I was watching the film (I’d somehow forgotten this was stated in the film’s trailer), but I did find myself thinking throughout that everything just felt so real, even the tiniest details, and now I know why!
Sauvaire has made the bold move to not subtitle the film at all, and with about 90% of the entire dialogue in the film being Thai it will definitely divide the film’s audience. Because Moore spoke very little Thai, you feel you’re in the exact same position as him. As he’s getting shouted at and threatened by his fellow inmates and prison guards you can see the confusion and frustration in Moore’s body language and facial expressions, and with only a handful of the prisoners able to speak a bit of broken English, Moore has to read their gestures and body language.
The absence of subtitles goes hand in hand with Sauvaire’s decision to make almost every shot of the film feel as if we were standing right in front, beside, or behind Cole. We’re always close to Cole and the other prisoners, and it feels as if we’re squashed right in that prison cell with them. It’s all very up close and personal, as are the conditions in the prison, and it does feel as though your personal space is being invaded. You half expect the smell of sweat and blood to fill the air.
A Prayer Before Dawn is unmerciful and barbarous, but this adaptation needed to be in order to show the real horrors Moore lived through. Tip-toeing around certain scenes of the film would have dimished the quality of the end product. Not long after he is moved to a new cell he is forced to watch an unspeakable act whilst a knife is pressed against his throat as the ‘ringleaders’ of the cell demonstrate their evil and sadistic power. This scene in particular is a hard watch, and noticeably a few members in the audience I was in had to look away. It’s just one of many horrors Moore would have witnessed during his 5 years in the prison, but Sauvaire’s decision to show this and shoot it like he did makes the whole film feel like we’re witnessing it first hand as it’s happening.
Cole is incredibly intimidating and contentious in his demeanor, even stood next to all the heavily tattooed prisoners Cole is one of the last people you’d want to pick a fight with, but it’s his facial expressions that really tell the story in this film. Cole can go from a hard looking tough nut that’ll smash your face in for looking at him the wrong way, to a broken and beaten man struggling with his inner demons and the hell he has to live in at the click of a finger. When he’s in the ring, Cole has an in incredibly threatening presence, and again we feel we’re stood right there in the ring with him as his fists go flying straight into the face of his opponents. The incredible effort Cole put into his training for this film well and truly paid off because the end result makes for sensational viewing.
The real crime here is that A Prayer Before Dawn only has an incredibly limited release, with UK cinemas barely screening it. It will also have a limited release in America starting August 10th, but if you can, I urge you to seek out this film and watch it as soon as possible. Sauvaire’s daring approach has paid off enormously and A Prayer Before Dawn now sits comfortably at the top of my favourites films of 2018 so far.
Directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Cast: Joe Cole, Panya Yimmumphai, Vithaya Pansringarm