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United Kingdom 2005
Directed by
Adrian Shergold
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Pierrepoint The Last Hangman

The life of Britain’s last public executioner would not immediately strike one as a strong contender for a film and it is little surprise that it did not get a theatrical release in Australia. Nevertheless, Pierrepoint, The Last Hangman makes what might have been little more than a wallow in the ghoulish into a gripping insight into another world, one both drably prosaic and extraordinarily bizarre. Drab yet bizarre because Albert Pierrepoint, cheery cloth-cap delivery man, later genial pub-owner was also executioner for Her Majesty’s Government and terminated the lives of 608 people during his career. Admittedly some 200 were Nazi war criminals but nevertheless it is a tally that renders one speechless.

The excellent script by Bob Mills and Jeff Pope focuses on the peculiarly English emotional disconnection that allowed Pierrepoint to “de-personalize” his job, bifurcating himself from his disturbing trade. Although they do make some comparison between his efficiency and that of the Nazis in ruthlessly disposing of Jews the difference is that Pierrepoint brought a strange kind of compassion to his task, casting himself, at least in his own mind, as the one appointed to mete out justice but never judgement.

As Pierrepoint Timothy Spall, having disappointed in recent years playing in Hollywood films, makes a welcome return to his home turf of working class characters and turns in a first-class performance as the permanently scowling hangman. Another Mike Leigh alumnus, Eddie Marsan also gives a fine performance as his only friend, Tish, whilst Juliet Stevenson is equally as good as Pierrepoint’s calculating wife, Annie. Given the drabness of their lives and the banality of Pierrepoint’s approach to his job, Adrian Shergold pushes the subject matter to the limits of tolerability without being sensationalist but only striking a somewhat forced note with the Nazi executions, the Strauss music introducing an undesirably flippant note to what is otherwise a unremittingly sober film.

Certainly not one for a light-hearted interlude but with your significant other but one that does justice to its subject.

FYI: Ruth Ellis, the last person hanged by Pierrepoint, indeed in the UK (she is the unnamed smiling blonde at the film's end) is the subject of Mike Newell’s excellent 1985 film, Dance With A Stranger.




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