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The Last Hangman Review
It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. The clock strikes nine and the hangman goes to work, getting rid of criminals the old fashioned way. At the end of the day he puts on his cap and heads home to his wife like any other man. But what goes on in the head of an ordinary person who's job it is to kill? This is the question asked by Adrian Shergold, the director of The Last Hangman.
The film follows the true story of the rise of Britain's most prolific executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, and his struggle to be a lead a normal life. Pierrepoint is played by Timothy Spall, most noted for his great supporting roles in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai. Spall shines in this film, becoming both a calculating, intense killer and a jolly pub mate. As the film progresses, he literally transforms as his burden becomes greater. Juliet Stevenson plays Annie, Albert's arguably supportive wife. She portrays the guilt and paranoia of an English housewife painfully well. Through her, we see the full story of the couple's social and moral difficulties.
Pierrepoint's only real drive is that of any honest, hard working man. He just wants to be good at what he does. This keeps the audience in a emotionally conflicting state. The viewer desperately wants Albert to resign from his chilling career, while cheering on his incredible success.
The film is very nice to look at. What a feat. One can only imagine the difficulty of shooting a period piece independently. It was very interesting seeing the gritty grey streets of a wartime London recorded on 16. It seemed to give it a charming modern context, though there were jarring out of focus shots here and there. One memorable scene is brilliantly spliced with actual footage of a capital punishment protest.
Aside from the physical shooting of the film, there were strong symbolic devices at use. In order to hang someone efficiently, Pierrepoint would calculate the prisoner's height and weight. To do this he would look through a small peephole in the heavy cell door. Whenever anyone is shown through a crack, or a hole, it's a hint of grizzly foreshadowing. The method of passing time was artfully portrayed as well. Pierrepoint kept a logbook of all the people who he killed, their names written in perfect script. The stack of logbooks got bigger and bigger as years went by.
Films like The Last Hangman are important because they challenge our choices. This story makes us think of what we're responsible for in our lives and careers. Is the success worth the death of your inner self? That decision is up to us. Because the saddest thing about Albert Pierrepoint is that he applied for the job.
Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's most prolific executioner, overseeing
the hanging of more than 600 condemned men and women including Derek
Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Lord Haw Haw. Adrian Shergold's film starring
Timothy Spall in the title role is a dark period piece exploring the
stark relationship between compassion and work ethic.
Pierrepoint approaches his grisly duties with pride, professionalism and a stoical detachment a third generation hangman, he is well accustomed to checking his personal life at the prison gate while he gets on with the job at hand.
But duty and morality are constantly battling in the back of his mind - a struggle neatly illustrated when he is seconded to Germany after the War and tasked with dispatching Nazi war criminals. His clinical work here is deliberately and uncomfortably linked to the crimes of the Nazis who gassed their Holocaust victims with the same brutal precision.
Back in England, as liberalism begins to take hold and high-profile executions enrage a population bubbling with discontent, Pierrepoint's reputation in the eyes of the public slides swiftly and irretrievably from British war hero to callous murderer a bewildering descent perfectly captured by Spall's mesmerising performance. Juliet Stevenson is not bad either as Pierrepoint's loyal wife gradually embittered by years of turning the other cheek at her husband's double life.
The film celebrates dignity and humanity but is laced with a uniquely British attitude evocative of Vera Drake and The Remains of the Day. Like these earlier social dramas, Pierrepoint culminates memorably in a momentary quivering of its previously resolute stiff upper lip.
I booked this independent little British film to show at Coalville's Century Theatre, on the Non-Theatrical circuit. Titled "Pierrepoint" here in the UK, this is a case of another quality British film being routinely ignored by the multiplexes in favour of the usual fodder presented for the masses. I was confident my regular audience would be interested by this true story of mass executioner Albert Pierrepont who really was 'a household name' in the 50s and 60s. In actual fact, Mr Pierrepoint was NOT 'the last hangman' in the UK. It really is a remarkably entertaining picture considering the obviously dour storyline, much aided by the portrayal of charismatic star Timothy Spall, who can be relied upon to always give an interesting and engrossing performance. Mr Spall is no matinée idol lead but not many would argue he is one of the most popular actors in Britain today. The film explains how Albert followed in the same 'career' of his father and Uncle Tom (who is briefly portrayed in the film), and interestingly reveals the technical side of his skillful and efficient methods for a successful result! Along the way, Albert is seen with Field Marshal Montgomery, who personally recommended Pierrepoint to carry out the Nuremburg executions, as well as other familiar people such as Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, all of whose cases fed the argument for the abolition of capital punishment. In the film, much dramatic use is made of Pierrepoint's execution of his friend, 'Tish', who often sang duets with Albert in the latter's pub. This really is true, very much a case of stranger than fiction. This film is strangely entertaining, never dull, although I noted some of the female members of my audience were regularly looking downwards whenever a hanging was shown. However, afterwards, there many favourable comments about this film and we were still talking about it at the post show drink in the pub afterwards! Obviously achieved on a very restricted budget, but a film to be recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
Between 1933 and 1955, Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's Chief
Executioner, responsible for more than 600 hangings. Timothy Spall
gives a devastating performance as a decent man engaged in the
loneliest of professions. The title is somewhat misleading. Hangings
were carried out until 1964, but Pierrepoint was the last man to hold
the official office of Chief Executioner.
As the film begins, Pierrepoint is proud to be offered a job as a hangman, following in his father's and uncle's footsteps. Since he's only needed every few months, he maintains his job as a grocer's deliveryman and keeps his moonlighting a secret from his friends and even his wife (Juliet Stevenson). He is very good at his new profession, and is determined to complete each job as quickly and humanely as possible. It's a bit odd seeing him trying to shave seconds off the time required for each execution, much like a professional athlete trying for a world record. That is, until you realize that his desire is for the prisoner to have as little time as possible to be afraid. After each execution, it falls to Pierrepoint to cut down the body and prepare it for burial, and it's touching to see the tenderness he displays. After the execution of one woman, he tells his assistant, "She's paid the price, now she's innocent."
Pierrepoint's reputation grows and after the war, he's flown to Germany by the British Army and placed in charge of executing scores of Nazi war criminals. As a result, his secret is leaked to the press, who now broadcast his identity as the finest hangman in the land. With his earnings from these jobs, he and his wife decide to open a pub(!), which does a booming business, thanks in part to his notoriety.
But the job begins to take a terrible toll. Even after he tells his wife about his second profession, she doesn't want to hear about it. Nobody really wants to hear about it. When protesters start demonstrating against capital punishment, Pierrepoint finds himself the target of their ire. Doubts begin to creep in to destroy his previously unshakable faith in what he does. By the mid-1950s, Albert Pierrepoint resigns his position (ostensibly over unpaid fees) and completely reverses his own position on capital punishment, though he initially keeps his opinions to himself. In his 1974 autobiography, however, he finally confesses that the whole experience had left a bitter aftertaste for him and that he felt that capital punishment had "achieved nothing but revenge."
Though this is a fairly standard biopic and "issue film," the performances of Juliet Stevenson and especially Timothy Spall are remarkable. Pierrepoint's determination to remain detached takes a terrible toll on his life and is bound to fail eventually. The obvious conclusion is that killing corrodes our humanity, whether the killer is a murderer or an executioner on the state's payroll.
When documenting a true story, criticism is often levied at the
film-makers for condensing and twisting true-life events to suit their
needs. That may well be the case. Unless the viewer has read first hand
accounts of such true-life stories, then the film versions of these
events appear stilted and fanciful.
Albert Pierrepoint's story has been well documented in not only his autobiography but by numerous historians and writers. With key events in the film being followed as closely as possible, it must have been nigh on impossible to keep everyone happy. Casting for this film must have been quite an exciting process. With people like Timothy Spall in the lead role, he showed all the care and attention that Pierrepoint was famous for. His wife, played by Juliet Stephenson, was a highly touching character. Although Mrs Pierrepoint never stood out in the original autobiography, Stephenson brings us a strong yet gentile woman, the driving force behind The Hangman. Eddie Marsan's portrayal as 'Tish' was casting at it's best.
A supporting cast of physically interesting character actors blended with superb lighting and set design, make a highly enjoyable and thought provoking film about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment.
The fact that the makers of 'The Last Hangman' managed to cram a fascinating life-long career into 90 minutes must serve as a tribute to their skill and craftsmanship.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Pierrepoint is one of those films you go to see having no idea what to
expect, which makes the film's masterful performances and brilliantly
dark style all the more intriguing to watch. The performances of Spall
and Stevenson are undoubtedly the best part of this film. Spall's
portrayal of his character's struggle to remain detached from his work
after losing his anonymity is definitely his strongest performance to
date and Stevenson conveys the dynamics of their marriage beautifully.
These performances make the film entirely believable throughout,
particularly in the grizzly execution scenes. These scenes are shot in
a brutally uncompromising way, a style which seems to reflect the
nature of capital punishment itself.
The film manages to convey its anti capital punishment message effectively and in a rather more restrained way than other recent "issue films". Where films such as Crash and Brokeback Mountain are inclined to blare out their loud and rather unsubtle themes, Pierrepoint takes a quieter, more objective viewpoint, leaving the audience to make up their own minds. I have consequently heard this film criticised for not taking a strong enough stand against capital punishment. However, this objective and uncoloured account of the executions seems to appropriately reflect the cold and indifferent mood that dominates the first half of the film.
In short, Pierrepoint is a brilliantly performed, wonderfully dark film that is probably one of the best things to come out of British cinema in the last decade.
Capital punishment in Great Britain was abolished in 1964. Prior to
that date there were many Home Office appointed Hangmen, none more
prolific than Albert Pierrepoint, who served from 1932 to 1956, during
which time he hanged an estimated 433 men and 17 women.
Following his father Henry and uncle, Thomas, into the family 'trade', Pierrepoint became the number one hangman in Britain and his career brought him into contact with many notorious criminals including "Lord Haw-Haw" ("Germany Calling"), real name William Joyce; John George Haigh, the famous "acid bath murderer"; Derek Bentley, still a controversial case and the subject of the 1991 film LET HIM HAVE IT; Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and again the subject of a movie, DANCE WITH A STRANGER (1985); gangster, Antonio "Babe" Mancini; Theodore Schurch, the last person to be executed for treason in Britain. Perhaps the most controversial case in Pierrepoint's career was that of Timothy Evans, whose wife and baby daughter had been found murdered at their home at 10 Rillington Place, also the home of one John Reginald Christie. Evans was executed in 1950. Christie was later charged with the murders of seven women and hanged in 1953. Evans was eventually granted a posthumous pardon in 1966. Evans was played harrowingly by John Hurt in the 1971 movie 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, with Richard Attenborough as a chilling Christie (according to John Hurt on the DVD commentary for 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, Pierrepoint himself actually offered his services, under an assumed name, as technical adviser for the hanging scene in that film as the actual method was covered by the Official Secrets Act and, ever the professional, Pierrepoint wanted it re-creating accurately, and nor would he have wished his work to be misrepresented).
Pierrepoint's body of work (if you'll forgive the expression) was greatly affected by World War II, and he worked all over Europe including Germany, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Austria. It is believed that in 1945 he hanged 190 men and 10 women war criminals at Hameln prison in the British controlled sector of Germany, including Irma Greese, Elizabeth Volkenrath, Juana Boreman and the "Beast of Belsen", Josef Kramer. During the war itself he had assisted his uncle Thomas in the execution of 16 American soldiers, condemned by Court Martial for murder and rape, at a military prison in Somerset. The movie carefully portrays Pierrepoint the man, not Pierrepoint the executioner. When he does his work he leaves Albert Pierrepoint outside. He is totally professional: he doesn't care who they are or what they've done, all that matters to him is that they are human beings who have to die and he will achieve that as quickly and humanely as possible. All that matters to him is height, weight and physical condition. He is also portrayed as compassionate. When organising the order of the hanging of the German war criminals he selects a girl, who has just accused him of doing the Jews work for them, to be hanged first. His army assigned assistant agrees as she's an 'arrogant bitch'. 'No,' says Pierrepoint, 'she's the youngest. She'll be the most frightened.' And after the deed he insists that the remains be treated with due reverence: 'They've paid the price. They're innocent now. D'y'see?' The publicity surrounding the Nazi war criminals disturbs Pierrepoint, as people applaud him in the street and buy him drinks in the newly acquired pub owned by himself and his wife. This isn't right to him. What he does, his job, is private, he does not even discuss it with his wife. All this attention isn't right. Also there is now an ever growing movement opposed to capital punishment. To some he is a national hero, to an increasing number of others he is a murderer. He starts to question his role. Timothy Spall, known as a dry, comedic actor on British TV (AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET) and usually the slimy, slightly dopey, comic villain in movies like HARRY POTTER and LEMONY SNICKETT, is mesmerising as Pierrepoint. He portrays a quiet, gentle man, and one who regards his profession with honour and pride. He is appointed by the Government; he is the best in the land. His is not to question the law or the decisions of the lawmakers; his is to do his duty to the best of his ability. And he does. Only when his own notoriety, the hanging of his friend and the changing mood of the country toward capital punishment creep into the melting pot, does his resolve start to falter, and only when the various prison authorities start haggling over payments for his services, something he sees as an insult to his position as Chief Executioner, does he consider resigning, which of course he finally does. There are a few historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies (such as the main fact that he was not the last executioner. Capital Punishment continued for another eight years after Pierrepoint's resignation) but this is the norm for this kind of movie, and on the whole the film is as accurate as any film covering over 20 years in 90 minutes. The acting is excellent in all quarters, particularly Juliet Stevenson, though Spall leads by a length. The period is very well captured and is a close cousin to VERA DRAKE in this respect. The main thing about this movie is that it lingers with you and makes you want to think and learn more about its subject. With Pierrepoint's 'clients' having played such a large part in cinema history, it's time we had a movie about the man himself. And this is it. Recommended.
I saw this DVD twice and read all the other user comments of this
recent film before I considered I was ready to write my opinion on
Capital punishment in the UK was abolished in 1965 and since then it has remained a controversial topic on which MPs have been given a free vote in the House (no whips office involved) and it has consistently been voted down by MPs ever since.The arguments for capital punishment range from "an eye for an eye"; why must the State keep killers alive at the public expense; as an example to other malefactors; to provide revenge for the bereaved families of the murder victim.I suppose the most controversial case cited for reimposing the death penalty stemmed from the Moors Murderers case from 1966, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who died in custody.Even though they could not judicially be hanged, no Home Secretary since then has considered it politic to release or commute their sentence because of the expected public and media fury.Of course today in Britain killers are routinely sentenced "to life imprisonment" which depending on the circumstances, does not necessarily mean the killer's whole life.
Against this argument is the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and whether the State is executing an innocent man e.g.Timothy Evans (hanged by Pierrepont) instead of John Reginald Halliday Christie for the murder of Evans' baby daughter.
Albert Pierrepoint was certainly not "The Last Hangman" in the UK as I believe he resigned shortly after executing Ruth Ellis in 1955 after a continuous career as Chief hangman stretching from 1933 and as I said above. killers were hanged in the UK right up to 1964.In his 1974 auto- biography he turned against capital punishment with distaste as he considered it was merely the State exacting revenge and solved nothing.Considering he executed 608 murderers we must respect his opinions.I suspect those that advocate execution would not like to do the act personally as long as there is someone else to do it and bear the crushing guilt on their conscience.
Juliet Stevenson gives a marvellously understated performance as Anne Pierrepoint, Albert's wife and provides the home life and comfort to her husband.She is also the business brains in the marriage.We see the chilling, technical efficiency and speed which convinced the Allied powers in 1946 that a British hangman was the best for dispatching the many Nazi war criminals sentenced to death at Nuremburg.Albert was informed by the brigadier that the first batch to be hanged in a day was 13 with many more to come.Albert did not want to know what evil the condemned had done and tried to ensure he kept himself personally and professionally detached when performing his duties for the State.He even had a sense of compassion for the condemned by trying to complete the hanging in less time than his father's average of 13 seconds to reduce the fear and suffering in them.In one notable case he was done in 7 1/2 seconds.Likewise at Nuremburg he decided to hang the condemned female Belsen guards first with the youngest going first as she would be the most frightened.
To my knowledge this is the first film which accurately shows the technical method of hanging that was used in British prisons.It was ignorance by film producers of this that made their films unconvincing when showing a hanging scene as hangmen were advised to keep their methods entirely secret from the public.
All credit must go to Timothy Spall in the central pivotal role and the whole production team in evoking capital punishment in a Britain between 1932- 1955.
Other writers have outlined what this film is about - Albert
Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman - so I shan't repeat a synopsis.
The subject matter of the film is very dark, but what humanises it are
the great performances from Juliet Stevenson and especially Tim Spall.
The 8 is for the quality of the acting and the film is well worth
seeking out for this alone.
I've not seen many reviews of the film so I hope you will forgive me if I post details of one:
You can also view a clip alongside the review
Hope this helps
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A wonderful, understated movie. Very British in style and with
Timothy Spall gives a wonderful serious performance as the thorough dedicated unquestioning professional whose value system is entirely interwoven with the mechanics of his arcane job. He never questions the rights and wrongs of his task: other people have decided whether his victims live or die-- he merely executes their verdicts with as much dignity and professionalism as he can.
There is no vengeance or remorse for his victims. He will not engage in debates or recriminations about either those whose guilt was famously in doubt, or those whose crimes were breathtaking in their depravity. All deserve a speedy painless death and a decent burial.
The highlight of the film is when he has to confront in the condemned cell a regular at his bar whom he knows only by nickname and does not realise his identity until he has to 'size him up' for the drop. This scene is beautifully and believably acted and is extremely convincing. The incident is very true and is portrayed almost exactly as Pierrepoint described it in his memoirs.
With capital punishment now discontinued in most civilised countries we are unlikely to see the likes of Pierrepoint again. He is portrayed as a man of his time. Loyal, obedient, trusting of his place in society and determined to uphold the status quo as he sees it. Which includes dispatching those who, rightly or wrongly, fell on the wrong side of it.
The moment of crisis in the film forces him to confront the fact that the line between guilt and innocents is sometimes a thin one indeed.
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