“Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman,” which first debuted at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2005, may have the highest body count of any movie to hit American theaters this side of “300.” Since Albert Pierrepoint was among Britain’s most prolific (though in point of fact not its last) hangmen – the film credits him with over 608 hangings – there’s good reason for the film’s seemingly endless depictions of executions, and given the movie’s middlebrow pedigree (director Adrian Shergold and screenwriters Jeff Pope and Bob Mills work mostly for British television, and the film was produced “in association with Masterpiece Theater“), it’s unsurprising that these executions are handled, for the most part, quite tastefully. Still, there’s something deeply unsettling about watching this parade of death; the accumulation of executions is both disturbing and desensitizing, as the film itself strives, with only intermittent success, to depict capital punishment in simultaneously human and mundane terms.
As Timothy Spall plays him, Albert Pierrepoint is rather dispassionate about all this killing. He sees himself simply as the instrument of the state, an efficient tool whose purpose is to expedite a sentence as quickly and painlessly as possible – he even manages the fastest hanging ever recorded (just over seven seconds). Pierrepoint segments off the rest of his life from his work, never speaking about what he does to his friends and family. When he’s drafted to execute Nazi war criminals at Belsen, though, his name makes its way into the newspapers, which brings him a measure of fame and, later, notoriety, and his newfound celebrity begins to erode the psychological compartments he’s constructed for himself.
Spall, best known in the U.S. for his charismatic and dynamic work in a number of Mike Leigh films, gives an uncharacteristically quiet performance. Through gesture, tone, and facial expression alone, Spall suggests the corrosive effect of his profession and Pierrepoint’s building moral crisis. In the best possible way, Pierrepoint’s ethical and psychological inner life remains ambiguous and largely inscrutable until the film’s third act, when a twist of fate (inspired by real events, though it nevertheless feels contrived) hastens a reckoning.
As his wife, Annie, Juliet Stevenson delivers an equally understated and ambiguous performance. Annie and Albert have an unspoken agreement: they do not discuss Albert’s work. But Annie’s also driven by pride and ambition. She saves the newspapers as they report on the Belsen executions and urges her husband to use his hangman money to purchase the local pub. She’s like a postwar British Carmela Soprano: eager to enjoy the benefits of her husband’s profession but unwilling to acknowledge the blood on her own hands. The Pierrepoints’ marriage almost becomes a character all its own; they aid and abet one another without ever speaking of the killing business directly, together feeding a death machine neither of them could ever accept individually.
When Shergold strays from this marital focus, though, “Pierrepoint” begins to feel like an over-directed, broadly written social problem picture. Shergold’s self-conscious attempts at artfulness start to feel like pretensions, and his preference for subjective camera angles distracts from the human drama instead of underscoring it; meanwhile, abrupt tonal shifts – most especially, an unforgivably glib montage of Belsen executions set to Strauss’s “Voices of Spring” – strike an unexpectedly lurid tone. However effective “Pierrepoint” sometimes is as a moral and psychological study, in these moments, it becomes the liberal art-house equivalent of, well, “300”: aestheticized death, packaged without the slightest trace of political sophistication, served up for our too-easy consumption.
Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.