Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall)) was the third hangman in his family. He applied for the job so he could follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle, both of whom had been employed as official British executioners. He was 27 when he carried out his first hanging in 1932. By his retirement in 1956, he had killed more than four hundred condemned men and women, making him the most prolific British executioner of the 20th century.
Executing criminals was an occasional job that demanded a couple of days work at short notice. Between jobs, Pierrepoint delivered groceries to shops and lived an ordinary, anonymous life. He was married and a popular face at his local pub. He was careful not to take his grisly business home with him. For many years, even his wife Annie was unaware of what he did on his trips.
On an assignment, Pierrepoint took great pride in his work. His professionalism and expertise quickly made him the first choice on the Home Office's register of executioners. He took no pleasure from killing people. His efficiency was motivated by a desire to make the execution process as swift as possible and to spare the condemned prisoner from unnecessary pain and fear.
In late 1945, when the Allied forces were trying captured Nazis for war crimes, Pierrepoint's reputation brought him to the attention of the military. Field Marshal Montgomery personally asked him to travel to Europe to carry out the death sentences. Pierrepoint was honoured but he would later regret saying yes. The sheer number of executions he performed in a short period of time (around 200) took an emotional toll and when he returned home, he discovered that the media attention given to the trials had shattered his anonymity.
The biopic Pierrepoint (it’s pronounced Peerpoint) is the work of two British TV veterans - screenwriter Jeff Pope and director Adrian Shergold. It was intended for television itself but it's been granted a well-deserved cinema release. Despite its origins and its small budget, Pierrepoint works extremely well on a cinema screen. This is a well-told biopic and a powerfully affecting film. It's impressively shot and edited, the production does a good job of recreating the period and Shergold's direction is vivid and involving. Pope's script is admirably tight, condensing a lot of time and incident into ninety minutes without losing focus on the protagonist. Like George Clooney's Good Night And Good Luck, Pierrepoint is a fine demonstration of concise storytelling.
Pope keeps his script lean by leaving out unnecessary characters (Pierrepoint occasionally worked with his uncle but he doesn't appear). This is basically a two-hander with Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson given the only major roles. Both actors are superb. Spall's performance is one of the most extraordinary you're likely to see this year, particularly in the film's later stages. The supporting characters are broadly sketched, too broadly in a couple of cases. The portrayal of one of Pierrepoint's friends and his floozie girlfriend comes dangerously close to caricature and constitutes the film's only real flaw. We also meet some of the executioner's victims, including some famous faces. We see them as briefly as he did but some still inspire sympathy.
The film isn't about the people Pierrepoint hanged however; it's a character study. Like Munich, it's about the effect killing has on the killer. Unlike the Israeli assassins in Spielberg's film, Pierrepoint initially finds his job easy. It's easy enough for a simple working man to rationalise. The people in the condemned cells have been sent there to die by a court of law. If Albert doesn't pull the lever, the Home Office will call someone else. The replacement may not do the job as conscientiously. Over his twenty-four year career, Pierrepoint comes to realise it isn't as simple as that.
Naturally, there are a lot of hangings in the film. They're staged in an unflinching, matter-of-fact style and more sensitive viewers will find these scenes upsetting. To those with stronger stomachs, they hold an undeniable morbid fascination.
Watching Pierrepoint, you learn a great deal about the art of hanging a human being (it's surprising that the BBFC, who are very sensitive about hanging, have rated this so leniently). Everything is planned meticulously to make the execution as quick and smooth as possible, even down to which way the hangman turns his victim to bind their hands. The most important task is to judge the drop. This means sizing up each prisoner and deciding based on their weight, build and profession what length of rope will be required to break their neck when they fall through the trapdoor. Too little rope and the neck won't break, meaning the victim will strangle to death; too much and their head may be torn off.
The film also finds time for insights into the mundane details of the job, some of which are blackly humourous in light of what the job entails. Pierrepoint's biggest complaint is that prisons don't have to pay him a cancellation fee when the condemned receive a last-minute reprieve, leaving him out of pocket for his travel fees and lost wages from his regular job. Good news for the prisoner, bad news for him.
The film isn't passionately political like Dead Man Walking and Let Him Have It but it does take a stand against capital punishment. The movie subtly mirrors Pierrepoint's own feelings about what he does, which change from acceptance that capital punishment is necessary to disillusionment to eventually opposing it. His opposition was partially based on the number of killers he executed whose murders were crimes of passion. Pierrepoint felt that the death penalty was no deterrent against such spur-of-the-moment acts and the movie ends with a quote from his 1972 autobiography, expressing his belief that all capital punishment accomplished was revenge. The film also reflects the nation's changing views on the subject. When Albert's identity is revealed by the press in 1945, he's congratulated in the street. His wife encourages him to take advantage of his popularity and open a pub. Ten years later, the tide has turned. After Ruth Ellis is put to death in 1955, crowds spit at his car as he leaves the jail.
The incident that does most to turn Pierrepoint against his profession may be a sticking point for some. It depends on a coincidence that's almost impossible to believe but is apparently true (I'm not 100% sure that all the details are portrayed credibly). If you accept this as true, the last half hour has a dramatic power that will shake you. If not, you may be left cold. This might be one case where knowing the story in advance helps you appreciate the film more but I'll leave that to your discretion. Google "Pierrepoint" if you want to know.