Just hangin' around.
Just hangin' around.

Spall, Bearer

Morbid Goths and reserved Anglophiles can at last find some common ground, as both groups are likely to be fascinated by Adrian Shergold's Pierrepoint—The Last Hangman. Much like Vera Drake, directed by Shergold's mentor Mike Leigh, it's the story of an average, modest-looking, middle-class Brit who just happens to deal a little death on the side.

"It's just in me. I always knew it would come out someday," says Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) of his vocation as an executioner, one inherited from his father. Right off the bat, we learn the tricks of the trade as he does—how to greet the condemned in a manner that gets them quickly turned around and disoriented (or rather, since this is England, "disorientated"), confusing them enough that they can be swiftly walked into the gallows room before they can get a bead on what's happening. The first time Pierrepoint participates as a hangman's assistant, he manages to be completely businesslike and routine, while his mentor shows signs of falling apart. It isn't long before the trainee becomes the expert.

Shergold and writer Jeff Pope aren't interested in debating the merits of capital punishment, which is appropriate, since Pierrepoint himself remained silent on the subject until years after retiring. The focus here is on the ability of both Pierrepoint and his wife, Anne (Juliet Stevenson), to compartmentalize the different sides of their lives. While claiming to take pride in his work, Pierrepoint emphasizes that he leaves "Albert" behind when he enters that cell, concerning himself only with the mathematics and efficiency of the task at hand. Anne, meanwhile, figures out her husband's secret vocation long before he tells her, but even when he comes clean, she insists they never talk about it.

Secrecy is the key—at orientation, Pierrepoint is warned never to reveal what he learns about the process, and he himself regards the details as sacred and personal, not to be discussed with outsiders. But the better he gets at his job, the less anonymous he becomes, particularly when General Montgomery (Clive Francis) hand-picks him to execute Nazi war criminals at an expedited rate of 13 per day. And if you think fame comes at a high price for run-of-the-mill celebrities, you'd better believe it gets hard out there for a hangman. There's a reason they all used to wear hoods, and it isn't because they mostly looked like Spall—the actual Pierrepoint was, in fact, considerably more handsome.

In true stiff-upper-lip U.K. tradition, the movie and the performances are mostly a model of restraint, giving the rare moments of outburst far more power than they would have in the hands of a more manipulative filmmaker. There's a moment quite similar to the last scene in Saving Private Ryan, in which Pierrepoint breaks down and begs to be called a good man, yet it doesn't for a moment seem overdone or out of place because there's been a lifetime's worth of buildup from Albert—and a movie-length's for the audience.

There is a plot development late in the story involving Pierrepoint's best friend that feels excessively contrived, but it turns out to be something that actually happened. The movie does fudge a couple of details for dramatic purposes, but not where you'd expect—as it happens, Pierrepoint wasn't really the last hangman after all, but The Most Efficient Hangman just doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

So whether you're a fan of watching ordinary folks deal with repressed feelings or simply obsessed with death and hanging, there's a whole lot to like here. I confess to a fascination with both angles, as well as a satisfaction with their portrayal, and thus dub Pierrepoint a great film.



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