Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
IFC Films // R // $19.95 // October 30, 2007
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted November 14, 2007
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Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman:

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?


Pierrepoint is mastered in the widescreen 16 x 9 format that works so well, you might even say it's enhanced for widescreen TVs. A drab, green and gray affair, the movie and transfer don't revel in sharp details and crystal clarity, there's even a little gritty film grain to dampen emotions a bit. That said, the movie looks fantastically appropriate for what it is, with a different kind of digital fidelity - no artifacting or mishandling of the dense murkiness - more like you're looking through a cigar-stained whiskey tumbler.

The ch-chunk of a gallows floor and a body being dropped is releiably transmitted in it's ominous finality through the aid of an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Soundtrack. As something of a quiet drama, Pierrepoint doesn't have an outlandish soundtrack, but it is loud, clear and sounds fine.

The Last Hangman ropes in few extras. A Director's Commentary Track by Adrian Shergold falls into the explaining-what's-going-on trap frequently. Bits of procedural information often segue into discussions of what's happening and what it means, or of the history in the story as told - a bit of redundancy. Shergold will also pause to highlight dialog now and then. The track is at it's most entertaining when Shergold talks about Pierrepont's life not examined on screen, but on the whole it's a polite, reserved and not-too-revelatory trip. Meanwhile, two deleted scenes feel like padding. The first at 10 minutes integrates into 8 minutes of footage that remained in the movie, adding nothing needed to the scene, and the second adds a little too much portentous drama to one of the executions. Also included is the Theatrical Trailer. English and Spanish subtitles are available. (Very useful as the accents are thick.) Oh, and the menu screens have a cute little noose that tells you where to click.

Final Thoughts:
Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman molds from a grim true story an engrossing, compelling character study and subversive message about capital punishment that neither drains now overwhelms you. It's a nice trick from such dour material to create something that doesn't talk down to or turn the viewer off, and I think one that's necessary to effectively deliver Spall's brilliant performance and Shergold's vision to the audience. But it's not a drama-fueled polemic, though tremendously dramatic and quietly passionate, ultimately it's a thoughtful examination of a somewhat ordinary man who, due to the most common of signifiers, work and family, finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman is Recommended for those who like their dramas strong and their performances award-worthy.

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