A Prayer Before Dawn film review: a skin-crawlingly real depiction of prison life

This shocking depiction of prison brutality deftly avoids the pitfalls that so often romanticises time behind bars

Prison movies and sports movies are too often plagued by machismo, a blokes-first classification that too often falls foul of that bro-y, back-slapping non-emotion of wrong-side-of-the-tracks gang mentality. A Prayer Before Dawn, despite treading the tightrope of both genres, deftly dodges such pitfalls.

Following the true-life story of Billy Moore, a British boxer locked up in a Thai jail for drug and gun offences, A Prayer Before Dawn paints no romanticised ideal of prison’s social strata. A fragile, drug addicted Moore (played stunningly by Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole) is alone in his plight, surrounded by seemingly endless crowds of heavily-tattooed Thai prisoners (themselves played by real ex-prisoners). Barely a word is uttered in English until nearly two thirds of the way through the film, and subtitles are non-existent – a claustrophobic stylistic turn that emphasises the film’s central theme of alienation.

Unlike most films centred around such social alienation, though, Moore isn’t given any room to breathe. The long shots traditionally used to emphasise such loneliness have no place here – instead, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire relies heavily on crowded mise en scene and tight-cut shots throughout, upping the oppressive atmosphere, while everywhere Moore walks he’s slapped, punched, pushed and jeered at in a foreign tongue. It’s a skin-crawlingly inescapable depiction of prison life – one that is emphasised through the shocking lengths Moore goes to to score ya ba, a highly-addictive form of meth, and his sole source of mental escape from his surroundings.

Above all, though, A Prayer Before Dawn is shockingly brutal. Early on, a fellow inmate is gang raped in front of a trapped Moore – Sauvaire depicts every second of the assault in harrowingly close-up detail. Later, an inmate is tortured by guards, with his anguished screams When the film’s final third finally reintroduces the redemptive angle of boxing, through an inter-prison fight that could see Moore lifted out of his hellish existence and into an ever-so-slightly cushier part of the jail, the sound of every landed punch is amped up, while the shots zero in on the minutiae of Joe’s bruised, broken and bleeding body. When we finally hear someone talk to Moore in his native tongue, it’s a doctor telling him both that the fighting and drug abuse has to stop – his two forms of escape might just be killing him.

A Prayer Before Dawn’s depiction of prison as a labyrinthian journey of setbacks, assault, alienation and isolation is one that leaves a lasting mark. There’s no tale of glorious redemption here – just as in real life, where the IRL Moore was once again jailed for burglary just this summer, and missed the premiere of his own filmic tale. It’s all the more haunting for it.

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