Movie Review of Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2007)

by JoHarrington

Timothy Spall gives a stunning performance in this compelling bio-pic of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most (in)famous hangman.

Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, Albert Pierrepoint became the most prolific British hangman of the 20th century.

This dramatic telling of his life is very loosely based on his autobiography and historical record. Everything in it is fundamentally true, though some characters or scenes are subject to artistic license.

It is a jaw-droppingly good film, made even more so by Timothy Spall's brilliant acting in the eponymous role of Pierrepoint.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

The Story of Albert Pierrepoint

His name was supposed to be concealed behind the Official Secrets Act. World War Two exposed him to the country.

Pierrepoint picks up as Albert makes the list as one of Britain's executioners. This is 1932 and the young assistant at a Pentonville hanging is destined to become the country's most well-known hangman.

Yet the man that we are introduced to is shy and self-effacing. He ties himself up in knots of awkwardness simply trying to ask a woman out.  The sub-plot of the relationship between Albert and Annie continues through the rest of the movie.

She knew his occupation (both as grocery delivery man and executioner), but didn't mention it for years. She was waiting for him to tell her himself.

However the main focus is on Albert Pierrepoint's personal journey as a prolific hangman. Until 1957, he escorted over 650 people to the gallows. His utter professionalism earned him a grim reputation, but he dispatched his victims with efficiency and speed.

His record, which is depicted in the movie, was seven and a half seconds between entering the condemned cell, and the man dead on the end of the rope.

Yet things happen to erode Pierrepoint's mental well-being, as a person doing his civic duty. Pressures from the State erupt into a situation, where he doesn't feel that the right procedures were followed.

Following the Second World War, when he is called to hang Nazi war criminals, the press learn his name. Public response is overwhelmingly positive; but it means that they still know his name, when the abolition movement gains popularity a decade on.

Finally personal issues blur the distinction between Pierrepoint the man and Pierrepoint the executioner. The result is a heart-breaking decision, which affects the rest of his career.

Movie Trailer for Pierrepoint (2007)

Books About Albert Pierrepoint and his Family

Buy Pierrepoint's autobiography, or biographies written about him, to learn more details about facts touched upon in the movie.

Timothy Spall as Albert Pierrepoint

I personally thought that he deserved an Oscar. He was absolutely perfect for the role.

I first saw Timothy Spall as the bumbling Barry in Auf Wiedersehen Pet back in the 1980s. Since then, I've watched his career progress through such roles as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies.

A great comic actor, he most certainly is; but this was a straight role with slightly sinister undertones. I admit that I wrinkled my nose somewhat, when I realized who was playing the lead. It didn't seem his sort of vehicle at all.

I stood corrected. My respect for Timothy Spall as an actor went through the roof after watching Pierrepoint. Not only was he utterly believable, but his portrayal was compelling in every scene.

If you watch the movie for nothing else, then it would be a travesty to miss him play this part. Bravo on all counts.

What did you think of Timothy Spall's performance as Albert Pierrepoint?

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Pierrepoint DVD Movie Trailer

Is 'Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman' Historically Accurate?

The wonderfully edited film captures the sense of what happened rather than adhering to factual fine detail.

I'm an historian, therefore it's always a little dodgy letting me watch movies set in the past. Deep anachronisms jar me out of the plot and leave me sneering, "That didn't happen!"

Pierrepoint passed muster, just about, because while some minor details were subject to artistic license, it did retain the context of the story it was telling. I could understand why historical accuracy had been expedited in some scenes, in order to maintain the narrative flow.

For example, Dorothea Waddingham is hanged near to the start of the film. Ruth Ellis is hanged close to the end of it. The two stories book-end the story and provide a contrast accordingly. This works for the movie. 

And the inaccuracy?  It was Thomas Pierrepoint, not Albert, who executed Dorothea.  This is the level of deviation from fact, which I could accept without being jolted from the plot.

The only time I did feel uncomfortable was during the section of the movie when Pierrepoint executes those found guilty in the Belsen Trials. 

In reality, while the thirteen Belsen guards were executed in one visit, Pierrepoint returned several times over the next four years to hang 202 more Nazi men and women.  In the movie, it all occurs wholesale during a single fortnight. In reality, the hangings took place upon a prison gallows.  On celluloid, they are killed in a converted warehouse.

The director obviously didn't want repetition, but the historian in me did wince. Then again, I am overly critical of such things.

Only one other aspect made me raise my eyebrows.  In the US release of the movie, the title Pierrepoint was expanded to include the context The Last Hangman.  He wasn't. Albert Pierrepoint resigned his position in 1957.  The last people were hanged in Britain in 1964.  Other executioners were very much current at the time.

Historically accurate information about hanging

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of hanging as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

Is the Movie For or Against Capital Punishment?

The clue to this lies in the fact that no-one watching can quite agree on the answer!

The young man looks up as Pierrepoint enters the condemned cell.  In a beautiful Welsh accent he professes his innocence, pleading with the hangman to believe him. 

Seconds before the noose goes around his neck, the man proffers a name. He thinks that Christie might have done it.

And that's the totality and end of Timothy Evans. I don't recall his name even being mentioned. In order to even link this man with one of the most contentious cases in British history, some prior knowledge is needed from the viewer. 

Pierrepoint hangs him. Blink and you'll miss it.  The narrative doesn't even tell us that the Welsh man really was innocent.  It's not telling his story.

As a vehement opponent of capital punishment myself, I was left with the feeling that this film was neutral bordering upon pro hanging. I've since read a comment on a forum from a supporter of capital punishment.  He felt that it was anti the same.

In my opinion, a big deal had to be made of Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis for that to be true. I've already covered Timothy; and I didn't see Derek in the movie. 

Ruth was presented unsympathetically. She smirked on the gallows. We didn't even learn her name until immediately afterwards, when a brief camera shot of the protesting crowds outside revealed it on their placards.

I still don't think that the movie set out to draw a judgement on the morality (or lack thereof) of capital punishment. It was telling Albert Pierrepoint's life-story as a hangman. He similarly made a point of not having an opinion about the individuals whom he was executing. He was not their judge and jury; and they paid their price once they were dead.

The commentator declaring the movie an anti-capital punishment film supported his assertion by pointing out that we don't know anything about the victims of the noose. He wanted their stories to justify Pierrepoint's actions.

I would counter that by stating that nearly thirty years passed during the course of this narrative. If every felon's tale had been told, then the movie would have gone on forever. The reason for their hanging was not important, because it wasn't important to Pierrepoint.

And if the stories had been told, then Timothy Evans would be amongst them. That's not one for pro-hanging people to want publicized.

Is the movie for or against capital punishment?  Neither.  It's just the perspective of one man, performing his duty as he saw fit, without that impacting upon the wider issues. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating insight!

In your opinion, was this movie pro- or anti-death penalty?

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Overall Thoughts About Pierrepoint (2007)

I absolutely loved it and can't recommend it highly enough!

It's been a couple of days since I watched Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and I'm still thinking about it. 

The movie was recommended to me by a friend. I've since done the same with other friends. I can't  believe that I hadn't heard about it before.  It's a quite remarkable independent film.

It's a drama and a bio-pic, with some excellent acting and wonderful direction.  The squeamish need not worry too much.  Hangings are obviously featured, but not with any lingering upon unsavory shots.  Heads are covered in white hoods and no nasty sounds are heard, behind the opening of the trapdoor.

It doesn't tax the mind too much while watching, but I guarantee that you'll be musing over its tale for a long time to come.

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Pierrepoint Does Not Pass the Bechdel Test

There is one more consideration to factor in though - does this movie pass the Bechdel Test? 

That's a simple, three question criteria designed to assess the role of female characters in any film.  The questions are as follows:

  1. Are there two or more named females in this movie?
  2. Do they have a conversation with each other?
  3. Is it about something other than a male?

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman passes on the first point. In fact, there are several named women in this movie.  However, none of them exchange words about men nor anything else. The script allows for them only to converse with or via male characters.

Oops.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.

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Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 05/20/2012

His job was macabre, but the movie is more about Pierrepoint himself. It's about his life as a hangman, so there's obviously some hanging scenes there. I found it an interesting film.

You're welcome!

Shaz on 05/15/2012

A macabre subject but interesting nonetheless. Thanks.

JoHarrington on 05/15/2012

There was no pun intended when I wrote it. Then I realized what I'd written and decided to leave it there. Gallows humour...

kate on 05/15/2012

'He ties himself up in knots of awkwardness' - subtle, i like it

JoHarrington on 05/14/2012

Really? :o I am totally failing as an historian here, aren't I? I'll consider myself shamed, edit the article; then buy his actual book instead of relying upon secondary sources!

Thanks for keeping me real here, cariad. <3

Fred Gwyar on 05/14/2012

oppssss, one more "In reality, this happened during several visits spanning months. In the movie, it occurs wholesale during a single fortnight." The Belsen's execution were in fact done in one "go" (13 hanged)
Pierrepoint did several trips spanning months to execute several Nazi (202 in total between 1945 and 1949)

JoHarrington on 05/14/2012

Merci beaucoup for the recommendation! You were right. I did enjoy it. (If 'enjoy' is the right word here.)

I'm ashamed on so many different levels to have got Nuremberg and Belsen mixed up. I knew it was the latter! I must have have a brain failure as I typed it. I've corrected it now. Thanks!

The film has made me want to check out the book; and I agree on the Oscar.

Fred Gwyar on 05/14/2012

Hi, just one thing: I haven't seen the movie in some time, but "was during the section of the movie when Pierrepoint executes those found guilty in the Nuremberg Trials. " I'm pretty sure in the movie, those were the Belsen Trail (Dr Kramer, etc...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be...).

Glad you enjoy the movie, the book is still better imo.
btw, he does deserve an oscar

JoHarrington on 05/14/2012

It was; surprisingly so, if I'm honest. My friend had read my article on hanging, so that prompted him to recommend this. I thought it might be worth checking out, but it's really stayed in my mind ever since.

I'm amazed that it didn't get more publicity at the time.

Guest on 05/14/2012

I'd never heard of this movie but will definitely check it out now. Sounds very interesting.

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