A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN, UK, 2017. Starring Joe Cole. Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire. 116 minutes. Rated R (High impact themes and sexual violence).
Tough, hard tough, hardest-tough. This is true of the film itself, of its central character, Billy Moore, of the prison situations, physically and emotionally. And it is certainly tough for the audience to watch. Words that come to mind include visceral, even gut-wrenching.
Joe Cole, in a convincing performance, plays a young Englishman abroad, based in Thailand, a boxer, practising several forms of kickboxing. In the opening bout that we see, after careful preparation and oiling, he loses the fight, loses control and bashes his opponent. We see as well that he relies on drugs for the boost in the ring and is an addict.
He is taken in by the police and sent to prison. Audiences will have seen films about drug dealers and imprisonment in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia. The Thai prisons that we see here (filmed in Thailand and in the Philippines, Cebu) are places audiences would never want to find themselves in. The questioning and examination at entry are the usual, but rougher. Because of the heat, the prisoners wear shorts – which enables the audience, perhaps rather astonished at the site, to see so many men and so many tattoos, all over torsos, backs, necks, even faces and scalps, and not just random tattoos but carefully constructed designs and colours.
Washing and toilet facilities are minimum. The prisoners sleep on rugs or on the ground, piled together. And there is a general air of hostility of the prisoners amongst themselves. And Billy is the only Westerner, white Westerner in the prison.
The audience shares Billy’s humiliation and endurance – although one of the guards does supply some drugs for him, forcing him to bash some Muslim prisoners on his behalf. With a knife at his throat, Billy is forced to watch a brutal sexual assault. There is no sign of any fulfilment of the title, although there are moments when there are some rituals of prayer and a statue of the Buddha in the prison yard.
There are some moments of lightness with the arrival of prisoner “lady boys” who staff the canteen in the prison, especially one Billy befriends who is called Fame.
It is the boxing which enables Billy to move toward some kind of redemption. He trains, wins the approval of the coach, fights hard, although a doctor examines him and tells him that his spleen is ruptured, he could bleed to death in fights and his whole system has been wrecked by drugs and alcohol. But, one of the authorities is impressed by him and suggests he trains for an inter-prison competition.
There is a final fight, perhaps in the Rocky-vein, but more unexpected and far less triumphant.
A spoiler warning. This reviewer saw the film not knowing that it was based on a memoir – so, it is surprising to find that Billy Moore has transformed himself, that there really was something of a prayer before the dawn, that he has devoted his life to rehabilitation as well as helping others in similar situations. (A final scene has Billy’s father visiting him in Thailand – and then the title over the picture of the father indicating that this is Billy Moore himself.)
Disney Released 18th October
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.