Pierrepoint (2005)

Rating: B

Dir: Adrian Shergold
Star: Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan
a.k.a. The Last Hangman

The exact number of people killed by Albert Pierrepoint is not known: most estimates are in the mid-four hundreds, the film says 608. Under other circumstances, he’d be among the most prolific murderer of all time, but he was actually the best-known executioner in Britain during the forties and fifties – following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who both held the position. The movie covers his career from his arrival in the post, through the execution of Nazi war criminals which brought him to public attention, much to Pierrepoint’s distress, and on through his eventual decision to resign.

While this was ostensibly a matter of principle over payment for a cancelled execution, the film strongly suggests he had eventually become burned-out by his work, despite a loving wife (Stevenson) and earnest efforts to leave his real self at the door of the condemned’s cell. In particular, the final straw was having to execute a friend, James ‘Tish’ Corbitt (Marsan), who was a regular customer at Pierrepoint’s pub. It’s nice to see Spall, often relegated to supporting roles [let’s face it, he’s hardly conventional leading man material], getting to be the central focus of this one.

While some questions regarding the factual accuracy are inevitable, he delivers a sympathetic portrayal of Pierrepoint, who is completely focused on minimizing the stress to the condemned, be they man or woman – to the point where the entire process, from him entering the cell to the drop, was fine-tuned like an F1 pit-stop, to less than ten seconds. There are moments of black humor, as his wife fusses over unpaid services rendered and Pierrepoint juggles his life as a delivery man and publican with his more morbid duties.

There’s also a nicely-observed sense of social change, as he goes from the toast of the town for his work in Germany, to being a pariah after executing Ruth Ellis, less than a decade later. A fascinating glimpse into a little-seen world; I’m reminded of the Nietzche quote, “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you..”