Being Britain’s last hangman cannot have been an easy job.
Similarly, a film about Britain’s last hangman could have been a very difficult film to make and sell to modern audiences. In today’s human rights climate, the death penalty is something very difficult to understand (unless you live in Texas or Burma), so director Adrian Shergold and star Timothy Spall faced a potentially difficult task in shifting the focus away from the job itself to the man who did the job.
Spall has made a career as an excellent character actor but this is his first lead role. It’s hard to see why he has waited so long; the fact that Albert Pierrepoint is a wholly sympathetic character from start to credits is entirely down to Spall. Juliet Stevenson is also great as Pierrepoint’s wife who supports and loves her husband while quietly cracking on the inside. The film opens with Pierrepoint’s training and follows his career as the man who executed people as notorious as Ruth Ellis and the Nazi war criminals. It also examines the ethical and humane foundations on which Pierrepoint did his job. For example, he insists on removing the bodies from the noose afterward because he is the “only one who can take care of them”, and becomes upset at having to execute up to 13 people a day in Nuremberg.
He also takes pride in being the fastest hangman in Britain: the scene in which he attempts to break the record is at once tension-laden and compelling. What surprised me the most is that I was cheering for him the whole time.
Shergold does a masterful job of suspending his audience’s disbelief in the same way that Pierrepoint himself views his job as an executioner as just that – a job. It is only in the film’s concluding scenes that this comes unstuck for Pierrepoint, and it is at this point we begin to wonder whether we can judge him at all. Totally recommended.