A Prayer Before Dawn (4 stars)

A Prayer Before Dawn

Joe Cole stuns in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's gruelling biopic set in a Thai prison

Prison films can provide a fantastic showcase for young actors, due to the sheer volume of suffering their characters are required to endure; think Ray Winstone in Scum, Jack O'Connell in Starred Up or Tahar Rahim in A Prophet. Stepping up here is Joe Cole, whose work in TV's Peaky Blinders has been rather overshadowed but who proves aptly barnstorming in this gruelling biopic of Liverpudlian boxer Billy Moore, based on Moore's identically titled memoir.

Incarcerated in a notorious Thai prison following a drugs bust, the young, quick-to-anger Billy (Cole) enters the very definition of a combustible environment: scorching, overcrowded, and both lawless and brutally policed. The inmates go shirtless, their full-body tattoos acting as a kind of uniform, and they sleep like tinned sardines; when Billy arrives he unwittingly cosies up next to a corpse, and is a helpless witness to a rape. Murders and suicides are, unsurprisingly, commonplace.

With echoes of Midnight Express, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire combines the traditional tropes of the prison film (cigarettes are currency) and the thankfully less familiar (solitary is a small, low-to-the-ground cage that would scarcely house a dog). The pace of the misery inflicted on Billy – exacerbated by his hot temper – is appalling, his journey captured with a fluidity that's appropriately bewildering. Until Billy's circumstances and comprehension improve, much of the native dialect goes unsubtitled, encouraging western audiences, at least, to share in his alienation, while Billy himself barely speaks as we view events through his wide, and frequently wild eyes.

It's stripped clean of extraneous information, with few personal details included – a letter from home, for example, goes unshared; this is about Billy's prison experience pure and simple. It's a grim and searing assault on the senses that finds hope in one man's capacity to survive and even thrive in truly nightmarish conditions. There's finesse in the filmmaking, colour and conviction in the supporting performances (including Pornchanok Mabklang as a trans woman with whom Billy finds romance) but it's Cole that really sells it, by making you feel like he's living every single horrible second.

General release from Fri 20 Jul.

A Prayer Before Dawn

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • France / UK / Cambodia / US / China
  • 1h 56min
  • Directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
  • Cast: Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai

True story of an English boxer (Cole) incarcerated in a Thai prison, who decides to participate in Muay Thai competitions to earn his release. Cole's star turn as the Liverpudlian boxer shines through the film's nightmarish depiction of his surroundings