It's probably no great surprise that a film about boxing, set in Thailand's notoriously harsh prison system should come with its fair share of violence, and A Prayer Before Dawn is no exception. Jean Stephane Sauvaire's film, based on the true-life memoirs of Liverpool-born Billy Moore, an amateur boxer, career criminal and drug addict who was sentenced to three years in Thailand's notorious Klong Prem prison, aka "Bangkok Hilton", in 2007 for handling stolen goods, certainly lives up to expectations. Sauvaire, however, insists that violent is not the word he would use to describe his film.
'Every fight told a story'
“I don’t think it’s particularly violent, there are Hollywood films that are a lot more violent,” he insists. “I’d say this is more realistic, and certainly a more realistic form of violence. And I think that’s what strikes people. Even the sound gives this sort of very violent feel. I think there’s a responsibility, if you’re doing a film about prison, and especially boxing in a prison, to reflect that prison is a violent environment. I don’t want anyone to think ‘ah prison looks fun – they have tattoos, it’s exotic, I’d love to be there.’”
The film's star, Joe Cole, who is best known for playing John Shelby in four seasons of the TV hit Peaky Blinders, concedes that the film is a fairly brutal affair, but like his director, he insists it is not a typical kind of movie violence: "Yeah, of course it is violent, the story is violent, prison is violent, but not in that glamourised Hollywood way," he says. "Jean was very much of the opinion that every fight told a story, was a vital piece of the narrative, not violence for the sake of it."
For Sauvaire, the real violence of the film can be found not in the brutality of prisoners and guards alike, or in the organised Thai boxing fights that Billy uses to achieve some kind of redemption, not to mention the privileges that go along with being on the prison’s boxing team, but in the mind of Billy himself. “With Billy, the violence is very much inside,” he says.
“He’s a tortured guy, he has so many issues with the violence with his father, and he’s got into drugs, he becomes a bad man, but at the same time he’s very vulnerable. He is in one sense this British guy that just fights and fights, but there’s also a lot more layers to him. He’s caught in this circle because of his addiction to drugs and I thought it was really interesting trying to understand his mentality.”
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Sauvaire says that the brutal scenes we see in the prison are very much an exterior portrayal of Billy’s internal demons. “We wanted to represent that inner violence with the external view. As he learns more about his environment he becomes increasingly internalised and we try and give that sense of claustrophobia, of what it is to be in prison, in the way the prison is represented,” he says. “When you are in prison, something can happen at any time, you can be stabbed in the back, you’re constantly on edge.”
Given Sauvaire's desire to take viewers inside the mind of Billy, it's perhaps surprising that the director consciously chose not to give away too much of Billy's back story in the film. Moore's book tells of an abusive childhood, a slow decline into crime and drugs, and a trip to Thailand in 2005 as a means of getting clean – Moore even worked as a stunt double for Sylvester Stallone on Rambo IV during his clean period. Sauvaire, however, offers us Billy as a largely blank canvas in the film, opening up with him already fighting in one of Bangkok's backstreet gyms.
Getting into character
For an actor, you would imagine this lack of backstory could present a challenge, but Cole says he was pleased with Sauvaire’s decision. “I met with Billy many times and we became great friends, so I really got to learn what makes him tick. I could get into the character and know how he’d react, and that meant we didn’t need to spoon-feed the audience,” he says. “With too many films, there’s just this neat beginning middle and an end, but here I think you had to concentrate a bit more, especially with there being so little dialogue, and a lot of that being in Thai. You really have to watch the screen to understand what’s going on. Body language and movement becomes really important. Besides, it’s not supposed to be a biopic, it’s just this one portion of a guy’s life.”
Like the audience, and like Moore before him, Cole found that he had to concentrate that little bit more to fully comprehend his own Thai experience – most of the actors used around him were real-life former prisoners who spoke no English, while the crew were mainly French. In a sense, Cole shared an experience as isolated as Moore had a decade earlier, albeit with a comfortable bed to retire to at night rather than a cell floor with 70 other inmates and, on at least one occasion, a dead body.
“I think that really helped me get into character,” Cole says. “Usually on set there are people going around giving instructions in English, but I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying. That just allowed me to totally cut myself off and work on my character.”
In the film, Billy does eventually find a form of redemption through his boxing, and eventually is released from prison in the care of his estranged father to, we hope, a crime-free life. This is partially what happened to the real-life Moore, though, there’s a cautionary tale in an unexpected turn of events since the film was completed.
Moore was among the 3,000-strong crowd who attended the film’s Cannes premiere last year and, reportedly, loved the film. He won’t be attending its cinema release this weekend in his native Liverpool, however. In 2016, Moore was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He blames a combination of the damaging effects of medication, and the effect of his illness on his mental health, for his slide back into addiction.
Earlier this year, he was sent back to prison in the UK for three years after burgling a neighbour’s house to feed his habit. Redemption, it seems, can be a very fleeting thing.