Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Pierrepoint (opening June 8 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas) bears the subtitle The Last Hangman. Apparently that's not entirely accurate but the film proves to be a fascinating portrait of a man whose profession was executing people.


Timothy Spall as Pierrepoint (IFC)

Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) does what many sons in the first part of the last century did. He followed in his fathers footsteps. Now most of the time, carrying on your father's trade is fairly innocuous, but in Albert's case, his father was a hangman in England. Albert carries on the trade, doing hangings on the side while delivering groceries to earn a more stable income. Albert is fast (14 seconds on average to execute someone) and efficient. He also has an appropriate somberness about the profession.


The film follows Pierrepont as he earns a reputation as England's finest hangman. He even gets called on by General Montgomery to come out to Germany to execute war criminals in a civil manner. But that job brings Pierrepont into the limelight as the papers and people dub him an avenging Angel for executing Nazi war criminals. All this attention means that the job Albert had done in private and had been able to keep separate from his home life, has become very public. No longer is there a separation between his work and his private life. And that's simply not right according to Albert.

Directed by Adrian Shergold, and written by Bob Mills and Jeff Pope, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman takes an unsensational approach to its subject matter. The film has a similar British matter-of-factness as Mike Leigh took in Vera Drake (a film about a housewife who performed abortions). Both Vera and Albert are basically good, kind people who do unsavory tasks. Of course there is a difference in the fact that abortions at that time were illegal whereas the hangings were all legally carried out. Pierrepoint's attention to the details of the executions is both fascinating and disturbing. Albert not only had to perform the hangings but what was more unsettling, he had to remove the victim from the noose, strip them, wash them and prep them to be taken away for burial. Albert treats the condemned with quiet dignity. The filmmakers also show Albert as someone who looked at the task as a mathematical equation, how tall is a person, how much do they weigh, how far do they have to fall to cleanly snap their neck. There's a creepy moment when Albert is watching a newsreel about the Nazis and their mass executions. Now I doubt that the filmmakers wants viewers to see Albert as some Nazi but there is an implied comparison made regarding the efficiency of killing that does make us question capitol punishment.


Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (IFC)

Albert had a strange disconnect between what he did and how he went about his life. He kept a journal of all the hangings and he was proud of his 14 second average besting himself at one point with a swift 7 second execution. He also wants to know nothing of the person's crimes or personality. Yet there's an unexpected humaneness that rises in him. It's a mix of restrained compassion and professionalism. When a Nazi woman insults him, he chooses her as the first of a group to be executed. When his assistant reacts as if the decision was made in retaliation for her rude remarks, Albert quickly points out that she is the youngest and probably the most frightened, that's why he's executing her first not because she insulted him. He continually tries to remove emotion from the proceedings.

But Shergold shows how public opinion began to change about capitol punishment. Pierrepoint finds himself in the news, and he also finds himself condemned by those who perceive what he does as no better than murder. As the sentiment against capitol punishment increases, Albert finds it more and more difficult to separate his private life from his profession. He also finds it increasingly difficult to keep emotions out of it. The film informs us that he performed more than 600 hangings and ended up in old age feeling that executions were ultimately no better than revenge.



Juliet Stevenson and Timothy Spall in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (IFC)

The strength of the film rests with Timothy Spall's flawless performance. If the film had only shown Albert at home, we would have never guessed what his profession was. Spall performs the executions with somber seriousness but shows a lighter side to Albert's character when he's off duty and at the pub. He also endows Albert with an underlying decency.

There are some occasional flaws in the scripting. An outburst at a pub has the unlikely scenario of Albert being morally condemned by a woman who's known to be an adulteress. She seems far too selfish and oblivious to the world around her to make the kind of condemnation that she does, plus no one seems to call into question how ill-suited she is to pass moral judgment on others. But the writers do find interesting details to highlight about Albert. For one, he could be called upon to travel to a prison for an execution but if the prisoner won a reprieve, Albert had to go home without receiving any pay or compensation for his travel. These mundane aspects of the business end of what he did prove fascinating.

Shergold's occasional use of a handheld camera to convey a more intimate perspective also fails to work. These shaky shots seem out of place in a film that is otherwise so smoothly produced. He does, though, have a nice eye for period detail.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (rated R for disturbing images, nudity and brief sexuality) is a fascinating portrait of an unlikely hangman, and Timothy Spall delivers a fine and nuanced performance. Pierrepoint's story also overlaps with a famous British case involving a young woman named Ruth Ellis who was executed. Her story was told in the film Dance with a Stranger , which starred Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett.

Companion viewing: Dance with a Stranger, Errol Morris Mr. Death, Let Him Have It, The Life of David Gale, Vera Drake Beth Accomando
June 14, 2007 at 05:00 PM
I forgot to mention another great performance by Timothy Spall, his role in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet. In fact he's done a number of great films with Leigh. -----