Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) is Britain’s most notorious hangman priding himself on his speed and accuracy and carefully minimizing their suffering as he dispatches over 600 convicts between 1933 and 1955. His fame spreads when he is called on to execute Nazi war criminals and eventually he has trouble sleeping at nights.
“It’s heavy going and rather ghoulish at times, but Spall’s enactment of the struggle between duty and doubt is just about perfect.” The Independent.
“While Spall expertly captures his character’s emotional complexities, the overall feature is a little too understated and austere, diluting the natural drama in an apparent attempt not to sensationalize its subject matter.” Radio Times.
Timothy Spall gives an outstanding performance as the dour Lancastrian hangman, Albert Pierrepoint in Adrian Shergold’s not always sure-footed biopic. His wonderfully rubbery features are alert to every emotional nuance as Pierrepoint tries to do his grizzly job with dignity and humanity whilst also trying to live a normal life with his silently suffering wife (the excellent Juliet Stevenson). The film was originally planned for television and suffers from the characteristics that haunt certain “quality” television dramas; there’s too much “period detail”, they’ve plundered their local Acorn Antiques Shop, there’s constant moody dim lighting to reinforce the idea that it’s “grim up North”, immaculately detailed and very clean costumes and perfect period hair-dos but also rather static camerawork, loads of fussy extras (“background artistes” to their friends) going about their everyday business in money-on-the-screen street shots. Unrealistically, nothing is wasted, everything is there for a purpose; an incongruous scarecrow in an early scene comes back in a clumsy nightmare sequence or a woman making an anti-capital punishment speech at Speaker’s Corner, inevitably sees Pierrepoint go by in his car. In other words this film creaks and it descends into the sudsiest of soap operas when, in a feeble twist in the script, Pierrepoint has to execute his best friend. However the executions are shown unflinchingly and unsentimentally and the hangman’s respect for his victims is not just surprising and moving but thought provoking. A wasted opportunity then but worth catching for Timothy Spall’s acting when it is repeated on television.