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August 13, 2007 | by  | in Film | [ssba]


Being Britain’s last hangman cannot have been an easy job.

Similarly, a film about Britain’s last hangman could have been a very difficult film to make and sell to modern audiences. In today’s human rights climate, the death penalty is something very difficult to understand (unless you live in Texas or Burma), so director Adrian Shergold and star Timothy Spall faced a potentially difficult task in shifting the focus away from the job itself to the man who did the job.

Spall has made a career as an excellent character actor but this is his first lead role. It’s hard to see why he has waited so long; the fact that Albert Pierrepoint is a wholly sympathetic character from start to credits is entirely down to Spall. Juliet Stevenson is also great as Pierrepoint’s wife who supports and loves her husband while quietly cracking on the inside. The film opens with Pierrepoint’s training and follows his career as the man who executed people as notorious as Ruth Ellis and the Nazi war criminals. It also examines the ethical and humane foundations on which Pierrepoint did his job. For example, he insists on removing the bodies from the noose afterward because he is the “only one who can take care of them”, and becomes upset at having to execute up to 13 people a day in Nuremberg.

He also takes pride in being the fastest hangman in Britain: the scene in which he attempts to break the record is at once tension-laden and compelling. What surprised me the most is that I was cheering for him the whole time.

Shergold does a masterful job of suspending his audience’s disbelief in the same way that Pierrepoint himself views his job as an executioner as just that – a job. It is only in the film’s concluding scenes that this comes unstuck for Pierrepoint, and it is at this point we begin to wonder whether we can judge him at all. Totally recommended.



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  1. Dave Elborn says:

    I arrived at the venue in good time to secure a good seat, back row right in the centre and a comfortable lounge sofa as well.Perfect!
    I had a unique experience while watching this film, something that has never happened to me in a movie theatre before [more on that later]
    I also enjoyed the movie.One of the criteria I use to assess the value/enjoyment of a film is the amount time I ponder the contents of a movie afterwards.If I find myself analysising a film days after I have seen it its a sure sign I found it a good movie.
    Pierrepoint had the uncanny ability to switch off when carrying out his duties as executioner then switch back afterwards and merge back into his community as if nothing had happened.This was the way he fought off the potential demons that must be associated with such a job!
    As the movie progressed cracks started to show in his modus operandi when firstly a man who was about to be hanged made an impassioned plea giving a credible outburst of his innocence then secondly when he became a public figure and subjected to a 1950s version of a media scrum with the public passionately devided for and against him and finally the unenviable task of carrying out the dastardly deed on his good friend.The latter leading to a near nervious breakdown and his resignation.
    I agree the film was well acted and directed and a good job was done in humanizing the job without glorifing it with only the scene involving Monty coming close to the latter.
    To me the stand out actor was his wife who did a brilliant job in playing the meek dutiful submissive supportive part the typical role model of that era.[womanhood have progressed a shit load since then thankfully]
    I thought the set designs were very good also depicting the era with small dark and dingy rooms,motley coloured carpet queen Anne furniture ,the ugly tiled fire place surrounds and the obligatory grandfather clock in the hallway.Even the food they ate was authentic for the time and place[not an enchilada in sight]
    This film rekindled in my mind the debate surrounding capital punishment.To me this issue has always been a no-brainer as the red neck eye for an eye ,let the punishment fit the crime argument is fimsy at best.Apart from the obvious like innocent people could be hanged as no system can be infallible[e.g Arthur Alan Thomas]and the effect on the people doing the hanging[it finally got to poor Arnold] the main argument is that if we have capital punishment then what we are saying as a society is that “you have commited this heinous crime so we are going to be just as bad as you and commit a heinous crime on you.”The mind boggles as to how a rapist would be punished if the “punishment fit the crime” logic was applied.
    The movie also highlighted the progress women have made and the changes in societies attitude over the decades and illustrates that things can be changed for the better on this planet of ours!
    rating ****
    Oh and by the way the unique experience I had while watching this film was that for the first time ever in my life I was the only patron in the theatre.

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