Movie Review by Dan Spiers
Starring: Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Michael Norton
Director: Adrian Shergold
It is not uncommon for sons to succeed fathers in the family business. But one tends to think of bakers as opposed to executioners. In 1932, in Oldham, Lancashire, Albert Pierrepoint accepted the invitation of Her Majesty The Queen to follow in his father’s footsteps. Albert was shortly to become the best, and finally the last, British hangman.
PIERREPOINT, directed by Adrian Shergold is based on the true story of Albert’s professional career and public life. Up until 1946, we see Albert (Timothy Spall) operating in complete anonymity. But when he is chosen as the man to mete out British justice after the Nuremburg trials his life is transformed. Upon returning home his face and name are front page news, but respect for his work quickly gives way to condemnation, as the nation turns against violence in the aftermath of war.
This is a fine exploration of a complex, interesting character played with aplomb by Timothy Spall. Pierrepoint clearly took pride in his work and though he did not relish killing, took great satisfaction in performing his duty with expertise. He endeavored to make the last moments of the lives that passed before him as quick and painless as possible. But the contradiction between his moral code and the reality of hanging is evident throughout.
Nuremburg brings this to the fore and is crucial to the film. Shergold takes us from the dark, enclosed spaces of Victorian prison cells to the natural light and open areas of an aircraft carrier.
Pierrepoint is a man possessed as he carries out simultaneous hangings, his quiet dignity increasingly resembling ruthless efficiency. Pierrepoint’s profession is laid bare for all to see, his actions proving less palatable when taken outside the seclusion of state sanctioned death.
After Nuremberg, private becomes public knowledge. Death effectively follows Pierrepoint around, down the street, in the bedroom and he can no longer cope with what other people see.
Pierrepoint’s internal struggle is beautifully portrayed by Spall, ably assisted by an intelligent performance by Juliet Stephenson as his wife, Anne. The weight of repressed emotion is hard to bare as they avoid the subject that is clearly at the forefront of their minds: only when Albert is forced by conscience to reveal he’s hung a friend do the couple have to recognize their comfort is built on dead bodies.
PIERREPOINT is an engaging film that gives an insight into a historical figure of genuine interest who has largely gone unreported. People do still campaign for hanging to be reinstated, but PIERREPOINT shows a post-war society all too familiar with the horrors of death turning against this method of punishment. There is a reason why Albert Pierrepoint eventually renounced his profession and it is worth being reminded of.