Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

2005, Movie, R, 90 mins


British actor Timothy Spall gives a shattering performance as Albert Pierrepoint, the United Kingdom's last official Chief Hangman, who's believed to have executed over 450 people before resigning from service in 1956.

England, 1934: After toiling for years as a humble grocer's deliveryman, Albert Pierrepoint's (Spall) dream of one day following in the footsteps of his father and uncle comes true when he's made assistant executioner at Manchester's Strangeways Prison. While the man he's assigned to assist nearly collapses from the horror of taking another person's life, Albert discovers he has not only the stomach but a talent for hanging. Over the course of several years, Albert refines his method of accurately estimating the length of rope needed to ensure a clean break between the second and third vertebrae according to the condemned's height, weight and apparent strength. Albert also streamlines the whole procedure in an attempt to minimize the amount of time it takes to enter the death cell, handcuff the prisoner, escort him or her to the gallows in the next room and throw open the trap. Soon Albert is known as Britain's fastest and most efficient executioner. While his growing reputation becomes a source of pride and consolation — he imagines that his speed and efficiency are a mercy to the condemned — Albert stays tight-lipped about his sideline: He refuses to speak of it to anyone who's not directly involved in the business, including his wife, Anne (Juliet Stevenson). Like Albert's mother before her, who refused to ever allow her husband to "bring it over the threshold," Anne rarely acknowledges what her husband does on his "trips" except to discuss any discrepancies between her husband's meticulously kept ledger and their bank account. Pierrepoint the Chief Hangman and Albert the good-time Charlie who likes a pint and a song with the lads at the corner pub are two different people, and keeping those two worlds separate is the only strategy Albert has to help him live with the fact that he kills other human beings for money. That separation becomes harder to maintain when he's tapped to carry out death sentences resulting from the Belsen concentration-camp trial in 1945: It's his ghoulish honor to execute up to 12 former Nazi officers every day for a week. The distinction catapults him to fame, but while he's hailed as a hero for killing some of history's most vile criminals, Albert also becomes the target of a growing movement against capital punishment, while also suffering the pangs of his own conscience.

Director Adrian Shergold and screenwriters Jeff Pope and Bob Mills take certain liberties with the facts of Pierrepoint's notorious career, but only to offer better insight into his complex personality. Portraying a character so deeply split in his psyche that he actually appears completely different while on the job is a daunting challenge, but Spall is simply brilliant. He transforms his normally cheery face into a hardened mask of stern determination and near-brutal indifference as he escorts each of his 450-plus charges to their deaths, only to soften afterward as he tends to their now-guiltless bodies. Stevenson is nearly as impressive as Anne, a moral coward whose very British aversion to unpleasantness renders her completely incapable of helping her husband once his carefully constructed world begins to crumble. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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