A Prayer Before Dawn
While the worlds of boxing and prison have separately – and repeatedly – been mined for good cinematic entertainment, there’s little fun to be had with A Prayer Before Dawn, which combines the two. Set in Thailand, and starring Joe Cole – a talented young newcomer playing a Liverpudlian far from home – it’s less Midnight Express than Midnight Freight Train, a grimy, violent, and gruelling art house exercise that mistakes intensity for insight.
It’s based on the popular memoir of real-life figure Billy Moore, which might explain the film’s complete narrative shapelessness. He was busted for selling drugs, and in order to survive in a tough Thai prison, he signed up to the boxing team and went on to become a champion. Yet if viewers go in blind – as this critic did – they’ll wonder why they should care about this guy in the first place. The first shot is of his back, bulging with muscles; he goes out on stage and beats the crap out of his opponent, violating the few rules that seem to exist in this hellhole. When he’s thrown into jail, he’s consumed by rage, but is made powerless by blade-wielding gangs – who bully, rape and murder anyone in their way.
We’re meant to find this shocking, and perhaps there is something distinctive about shoving blood and dirt under our nose at such a relentless pace. Unfortunately, it all seems to be a game of smoke and mirrors, with none of the subtext and character that made, say, A Prophet so engaging. There’s a limit to how far filmmakers can go while adhering to a real-life story – which means that narrative strands including Billy’s transgender lover and absent father never get resolved to any satisfying degree.
Without the book’s interior monologue, all we see is punching, lots of punching, bleeding, punching, more bleeding, more punching, some occasional kicking, and just general, unimaginative variations on reprehensible behaviour. They say the worst thing about prison is the boredom; after seeing this film, you’ll be all but inclined to agree.
A Prayer Before Dawn does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2017 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the official BFI website here.
Watch a clip from A Prayer Before Dawn here: