It is widely accepted that humans are fallible beings who simultaneously possess the capacity to kill and to love, to seek vengeance and to seek comfort. For decades it has been assumed that whilst the Old Testament philosophy of an eye for an eye is a foolish doctrine to live by, society as a political and authoritarian framework is not necessarily limited by moralistic boundaries as long as it keeps the general well-being of its inhabitants as its first priority. By this theory it is therefore possible to justify the existence of capital punishment in a modernistic, developed society – perhaps this was the reason why the death penalty wasn't finally abolished in the UK until the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998, although the actual practice of executing convicted criminals came to an unofficial end in 1964.
In Adrian Shergold's Pierrepoint, a biopic that aims to examine the psyche of Britain's most famous hangman and the time in which he lived and worked, modern-day audiences get to indulge their morbid fascination with the mechanisms of death whilst witnessing the profound psychological effects such an instrument can have on people. Albert Pierrepoint was born in 1905, the son of Henry Pierrepoint, the current Chief Executioner of the United Kingdom. His life was dominated by the knowledge that his father was in essence a paid killer, or a practitioner of justice depending on how you look at it, and after working various menial jobs he followed in his father's footsteps at the age of just 27. His professional, detached manner soon came to the attention of the Home Office and he was promoted to the role of Chief Executioner in 1941.
But, what is remarkable is the way in which Pierrepoint managed to completely separate his gruesome daily job from his home life; his friends and colleagues back in Manchester (he moonlighted as a greengrocer during interim periods between executions) had no idea of his double life as a hangman. He was later dubbed "Britain's most famous hangman" which is an accurate description of the man – if he had been described as infamous, it would have betrayed Pierrepoint's gentle, humanitarian nature and instead portrayed him as a notorious man instead of a respected one. Many people back home, after finally learning of his real profession, felt real respect and admiration for a quietly humble man who did his work in the name of the Crown and who prided himself on offering the condemned a quick, fearless death. Incidentally, Pierrepoint holds the record for the fastest hanging on record – James Inglis was pronounced dead a mere seven seconds after being led out of his cell.
In this film, which was originally produced for TV before achieving enough critical acclaim to warrant a full theatrical release, Timothy Spall embodies the character of Pierrepoint with his usual grasp of the importance of nuance and empathy. The audience can understand why Pierrepoint makes the choices he does, why he strives to achieve a level of perfection even in this most unlikely of professions, and why several incidents begin to haunt the man in later life. Similarly, the supporting cast are all excellent, with notable kudos going to Juliet Stevenson as Pierrepoint's isolated wife and the rising star Eddie Marsan as his friend Tish; Marsan is slowly building up a solid body of work which includes remarkable turns in work as varied as 21 Grams, Miami Vice and Vera Drake, whilst his performance in this film is quietly haunting and certainly emotionally resonant. His connection with Spall's Pierrepoint forms the crux of the third act and it is through Pierrepoint's eyes that we witness the full consequences of the act of killing.
Shergold's direction is competent and fluid without ever being showy – he is an accomplished TV director who has rightfully made the transition to the big screen and his recreation of Second World War England is splendid. Through his lens the audience is allowed the chance to examine the state of the criminal justice system in the not-so-distant past, whilst also being offered a frank and honest look at the nature of killing. Just like recent films such as Munich and A History of Violence, repressed feelings of violence and ultimately murder will always catch up with the beholder.
Released courtesy of Lions Gate, who I believe have only recently branched out into Region 2 releases, this DVD arrives five months after the film's theatrical release. English subtitles are provided throughout the main feature and the disc's menus are simply, yet elegantly, designed.
Bearing in mind the film was originally shot with a TV release in mind, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks fine and it certainly rivals other Hollywood releases. However, there is a slight prevalence of grain and a slight lack of sharpness to the image, suggesting either budgetary or film stock constraints. On the plus side, colours are reproduced well and there are no digital artefacts to speak of. Moving onto the audio side of things, sound is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 – it's perfectly adequate given the nature of the film and no ambience is lost due to the lack of a surround-sound mix. An audio-descriptive track is also provided.
Sadly no extras are provided on the release. A documentary fully exploring Pierrepoint's life, or an audio commentary by the director and screenwriter, would have been worthwhile.
A quietly powerful film is presented on a good DVD release; the film more or less disappeared without trace at the box office so let me take this chance to fully endorse Adrian Shergold's compelling biopic as a chance to watch an unflinching, and ultimately moving, examination of life and death.