Also known as The Last Hangman, director Adrian Shergold's film about the most famous executioner in England during the World War II war crimes trials and hangings follows the long lineage of English droll drama. Though performed behind closed doors these days, Albert Pierrepoint was the man who killed off key members of the Nazi party and therefore was seen as some sort of macabre hero to the masses of England. As a celebrity, however, he was an uncomfortable fit.
Pierrepoint, here played by the great Timothy Spall, was an unlikely public figure. In reality, Pierrepoint looked much older, skinnier and fatigued than Spall does but Spall gets the other part down: efficiency. Following in his father's and uncle's footsteps, Albert took up the job of a hangman to help supplement the wages he got for doing deliveries for the local supermarket. The grocery was also where he met his wife Anne Fletcher (a dazzling Juliet Stevenson) who would be his main supporter in his work. Albert would go on to perform hundreds of hangings, including a major batch of German World War II criminals, until he quit due to the backlash over capital punishment and his arguable celebrity status.
Shergold builds narrative byways throughout Pierrepoint's life, helping to better construct a heavy climax. The mood, not to mention the casting of Spall, is straight out of the book of Mike Leigh, though the craftsmanship here isn't nearly as fluid. Shergold fits the hangings with a sense of business-as-usual, '40s dance music accompanying at times. For such stark subject matter, these moments cause caterwaul between the theme (death) and the rather inconsistent mood.
One of these byways that are used is the relationship between Pierrepoint and his friend Tish (the versatile Eddie Marsan). Marsan's ability to shift gently from giddy nervosa to consuming dread fits perfectly with Spall's jolliness and stern professionalism. So, when the (obvious) climax occurs, the scene plays out with dutiful concentration, even if it arrives at the climax by many arguable methods. Eventually, however, the dramatic intensity built by the actors overshadows the dents and clinks in the script by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills.
Pierrepoint ultimately finds its battle between the public visage and the private man. Spall's performance quietly boils under the pressures of a maddening public, a gently manipulative wife and an eroding sense of soul. Once he's a celebrity, Pierrepoint is no longer just the man doing his job but a star doing what he was born to do. Thusly, he can't keep the calm that his father and uncle exuded. The drab production design meets the dread of the emotional decorum, but the swiftness of the camera and the story doesn't do the acting or the mis-en-scene justice. English drama of this caliber, synonymous with acting rather than filmmaking, doesn't cause massive eye rolls or even cynicism. What it does do is stick to patented techniques, and the end result feels like business as usual done by-the-book.