If you wanted to know how it feels to be the only foreign inmate in a Bangkok prison, then ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is about as close as you could get – without walking into a Thai police station with your pockets full of heroin.
As heroin addict and Thai boxer Billy Moore – upon whose memoir this film is based – Brit up-and-comer Joe Cole (‘Peaky Blinders’) is the audience’s suffering avatar. He’s hurled into the heat, the overcrowding, the ever-simmering threat of violence, all represented by real ex-convicts, many of whom are covered from head to toe in fearsome tattoos. Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire has an unblinking documentarian’s eye, presenting extremity without sinking into exploitation. He films in long, painful takes, whether it’s Billy being pummelled in the ring, getting his next hit, or just trying to navigate his way along the serrated edge of Bangkok prison culture – a stranger in the strangest, deadliest of lands, who neither speaks the language or knows the customs.
It is tough viewing, though not as tough as it must have been for Cole to recreate Billy’s delirious, drug-induced decline and eventual redemption. It is not merely an almost recklessly selfless performance, but also a surprisingly sensitive one, cracking Moore’s carapace to reveal the vulnerability beneath – of a lonely, unloved and desperately weak man whose only lifeline is the sport he loves. Light on dialogue and heavy on expression both physical and emotive, he keeps you watching even if what you’re seeing makes you want to hide your eyes and cower.