A truly fascinating portrait of a singular man, Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman pretty much outlines its based-on-a-true-story plot with its title. Pity, because that title sounds like something from the BBC version of The Lifetime Network, but I guess it gives people more of an idea of what to expect than the on-screen title - simply: Pierrepoint.
Timothy Spall inhabits the title role, Albert Pierrepoint, an amiable yet bloody-minded gent who delivers groceries. Charming with the ladies and everyone's friend, you can see as he visits the grocers on an off day to flirt that he has no problems causing polite British turmoil to achieve his goals. And with deft editing we find him successful and married some time down the road. But like most affable, stubborn men who sweep you off your feet, he's got a secret. Pierrepoint was born into the hangman's trade and (beginning in 1932) has been following in Father's footsteps, determinedly rising to the top of his profession.
Spall summons a layered, mesmerizing quality for his head-down, shoulders-squared workhorse. His polite-savant tendencies overwhelm him from behind his eyes as he calculates rope length based on the height and build of his 'clients.' No ghoul, he looks at his work with Anglican philosophy; his topmost qualification is an ironic focus on humane efficiency. He's halved his father's best execution speed but his pride extends no farther than the prison walls wherein folks are killed. At the pub he'll tipple and sing, commanding friends' attention with the gleaming eye of an imperious elf, and he never speaks of his work with his wife. Of course something's got to give eventually.
Pierrepoint's war-era friends and family are less fleshed-out; a lovable loser here, a brash harridan there, true supporting characters in place to move Pierrepoint to his boiling point. But another performance of quiet power comes from Juliet Stevenson as wife Annie, who suffers so far beneath her surface you see it only in her lip at times, she's the rock for Albert's rock, invisibly eroding.
Director Adrian Shergold has put it all together with a sure hand. There's so much gravity in the subject and olive grey British atmosphere created that Shergold grants the performers room to be light - dour and searing turns to simple work-life chatter - and even the scenes of execution are so matter-of-fact that their weight sneaks up on you. It's the compounding of these neck-snapping scenes, glossed over with the Pierrepoint's reserved optimism (they buy a Pub with Albert's earnings) that sets stage for a minor cataclysm. Part devilish coincidence, part a function of changing public opinion on capital punishment, Pierrepoint must eventually account for what his work has done to him, as - in his way - Shergold asks us to account for our views on execution. Is there a bit of hopefulness in that addendum to the movie's title after all?