Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

The question for any executioner must be how do they look into the eyes of someone whose life they're about to take and not have it affect you in some way. Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall), over the course of his career, gazed into the eyes of hundreds of doomed souls and managed it by keeping a professional distance.

"When I walk through that door, I leave Albert Pierrepoint behind," he says. He tries to keep his work separate from the rest of his life. The business of hanging criminals for the British government is a job, a duty to be done, a task that requires professionalism. "We don't hurt them. Instantly," he says, describing how the executions are conducted.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005) chronicles the life and career of Albert Pierrepoint and how, despite his best efforts, they intersect.

Pierrepoint is widely regarded to have been Britain's most prolific executioner. According to the film (but with conflicting numbers elsewhere), he personally executed 608 people from 1933 until he resigned over a pay dispute in 1955. The son of another executioner, Pierrepiont took pride in his work, not so much the death but his skill in making them quick and relatively painless. Humane and efficient.

Outside his government role, he works as a grocery deliveryman and is happily married and devoted to Annie (Juliet Stevenson). After World War II, he is personally recruited by Field Marshall Montgomery to execute convicted Nazi war criminals. Returning home, people discover who he is and hail him an avenging angel. As the years go on, national sentiment sours on capital punishment, however, and Pierrepoint finds himself more uncomfortable with his job.

Many films that oppose the death use the wrongfully convicted angle. How do we know an innocent man or woman was not put to death? In Pierrepoint, the guilt of the convicted is never really questioned, and Albert says he's not interested in what their crimes were, even when hanging Nazis. Once they're dead, they've paid the price, wiped the slate clean, and deserve a little dignity. The government has given him task to perform, and he's happy to oblige and be the best.

Timothy Spall, a character actor best known for playing slimy, subservient villains in the likes of Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd, absolutely nails the role. He plays Pierrepoint as a quiet, competent man finding himself overwhelmed by the attention his job getsr. In a private jail room, he can do a job and not think about its implications. He focuses on how much rope he'll need. He's proud of being regarded as the best. But once people know who he is, the condemned beg for mercy using his name, mothers of prisoners cry at his feet in the street for their sons' lives, and opponents of capital punishment call him a murderer.

Stevenson is also really good as his wife Annie. Pierrepoint does not want to tell her what he does for a living, but when he does, she already knew. She just wanted to hear it from him. The most emotional moment in the movie occurs toward the end when he breaks down, clutches at her legs, and begs her to tell him he's a good man.

For a movie about executions, it is remarkably restrained. Most deaths are implied with careful framing and quick cut. The impact is illustrated by the faces of Pierrepoint and the other witnesses, those trying to keep their composure and the others showing shock and disgust. The film has a cold and detached look that contrasts nicely with characters' emotional states.

Pierrepoint is curious because it's a death penalty movie that's not really focused on the larger right-or-wrong issue of it (although based on the final text, I'm convinced it's opposed). Instead, it concentrates on the man at the center of it, how he does his job, and how it impacts his life. It's a compelling character study.

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