Timothy Spall brings understated, nuanced complexity to Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman, walling up doubt and disgust behind a genial façade as his titular government employee follows in pop’s footsteps to become Britain’s finest (and, eventually, final) executioner. Albert Pierrepoint’s desire to maintain a boundary between his professional and private lives is given somber heft by Spall’s controlled performance, in which the unassuming twitch of his neck or hands belies a vigorous struggle to avoid fully analyzing or confronting his work. The sight of Spall straightening his jacket after a hooded convict falls through the gallows’ door, his eyes—like his heart—shadowed in darkness, is the emotional epicenter of Adrian Shergold’s film, as well as its chief worthwhile component.
Blending the stateliness of Masterpiece Theatre (which produced the film in collaboration with the UK’s Granada Television) with the grim, socially conscious blue-collar realism of Mike Leigh, this recounting of Pierrepoint’s rise and fall proves mostly a schematic message movie. Shergold’s initial interest in Pierrepoint’s conflicted psychological state is epitomized by a haunting shot of the gallows bag used in the procedure—a representation of the weighty burden upon his shoulders—as well as a scene in which the cold, methodically efficient hangman stares, with stifled but nonetheless horrified identification, at a newsreel about the Nazis’ economical genocidal practices.
What begins as an inquisitive character study about self-delusion-through-efficient-workmanship, however, soon morphs into a preachy, arid drag about the unjustness of capital punishment. Shergold posits Pierrepoint’s celebrity (attained thanks to hanging a gang of Nazi swine) as a catalyst for his disillusionment, yet the means by which anonymity and fame impact his mental state is a topic only partially skimmed. Weaker still is the narrative mechanism that upends Pierrepoint’s once-staunch belief that he’s not a murderer but merely an instrument of the state, which comes via a third-act twist involving his pub-frequenting friend Tish (Eddie Marsan) that, despite the film’s supposed “based on true events” credentials, comes off as merely so much preposterous, contrived nonsense.