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NEW YORK REVIEW
Timothy Spall plays the title character in Adrian Shergold's engrossing Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, in which he looks like a cross between a giant rat (which he plays, more or less, in the Harry Potter films) and Charles Laughton's doleful Quasimodo. It's 1932, and Pierrepoint (pronounced "Peer-point") has always wanted his late dad's job—executing men and women in the name of the Crown. He turns out to be a natural at judging the precise length of rope that will snap their second and third vertebrae most efficiently (and, in a manner of speaking, most humanely) without ripping off their heads (as was done recently in Iraq, home of less conscientious hangmen).
Pierrepoint—who really existed—doesn't want to know the crimes of those he hangs; he only wants to know their height and weight. And he doesn't regard hangings as occasions for hanging out; he finishes off the condemned swiftly. (He aims to beat his dad's average time of thirteen seconds from holding cell to trapdoor.) Afterward, he cleans their bodies with tenderness and care. They have paid the ultimate price for their crimes, he says, puffing ruminatively on a cigar. Now they are innocent.
Pierrepoint believes he can remain detached from what he does. The movie's message is that he can't, which we realize in the first fifteen minutes (Spall's features are plainly stricken) but which takes Pierrepoint 75 more. That makes the payoff, however emotional, relatively small. But Pierrepoint is worth seeing for Shergold's attention to process and for all the ghoulish details. Who knew General Montgomery himself tapped Pierrepoint to hang a slew of Nuremberg-condemned Nazis to show the world how civilized societies kill people? It's also fascinating to watch Spall tiptoeing around his proper English wife (the wonderful Juliet Stevenson), who counts the money but won't hear a word about what her husband does for it. Alcoholics Anonymous members are fond of saying, "Denial is not a river in Egypt"—but it might be a river in England. —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine