Like its grimly efficient protagonist, Brit-made biopic “Pierrepoint” takes on the less-than-thrilling assignment of sketching the life of Blighty’s most famous hangman, Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992), and executes the task with technical skill and sensitivity, ably abetted by Timothy Spall’s nuanced lead perf. However, TV-helmer Adrian Shergold can’t quite pull off tricky balancing act between understated working-class poetic miserablism, in the manner of acknowledged exemplar “Vera Drake,” and an issue-based melodrama’s demands for a flashy third-act. Mildly disappointing result, acquired for theatrical Stateside by IFC, is likely to reap polite notices and tepid B.O. after opening this week in Britain.
Up until its last half hour introduces a purely fictional plot device to up the ante, script credited to Jeff Pope and Bob Mills cleaves fairly closely to the known facts about the historical figure Albert Pierrepoint. This by-all-accounts mild-mannered man lived with his widowed mother in the North of England, married a nice, respectable local woman, and passed away at a ripe old age.
But, he was best known for his second job: hanging people for His (later Her) Majesty’s Prison Service, something of a part-time family biz given both his dad and uncle were also executioners. Murderers John George Haigh and Ruth Ellis (subject of earlier film “Dance With a Stranger”), the posthumously pardoned Derek Bentley, and some 40 Nazi war criminals are just some of the more than 500 people Pierrepoint put to death.
First hour of pic verges on the repetitive as Pierrepoint (Spall) divides his time between working as a grocer’s delivery man and later as a pub landlord in Oldham, Lancashire, and traveling around the U.K. to perform his other job, kept a closely guarded secret for years until he finally confesses to his wife Anne (Juliet Stevenson, brimming with bustle and occasionally bristling with repressed emotion) and then is later outed by the media.
Although the rituals are the same each time, each execution Pierrepoint oversees is different, the final scene in a drama whose most exciting moments (the crime, the trial) have taken place offscreen. Some of the condemned cry, protest their innocence or rush to get it over with. Pierrepoint endeavors to treat each exactly the same, concerning himself more with how to adjust the length of his rope for each person’s weight and height.
Endowing the role with the sort of salt-of-the-earth humanity that he so often brings to the proletarian characters he plays for Mike Leigh and others, Spall accentuates Pierrepoint’s dignity, presenting him as a man with a certain pride in his job, always exacting in his efforts to give the convicted a quick, clean death and by-the-book aftercare. There’s no gallows’ humor on his watch.
Among friends and family, he can show a lighter side, however, running through old vaudeville comedy routines or singing in the pub with his friend Tish (Eddie Marsan).
Unfortunately, the script takes a tawdry turn for the worse by working Tish into a contrived subplot that forces Pierrepoint to confront his feelings about capital punishment, creating a preachy tone that undermines the solid work of film’s previous hour.
Tony cast, especially Spall, nevertheless manage to keep pic always watchable, even if total package has the unmistakable air of upmarket TV with better-than-average dialogue. Production design by Candida Otton makes all of Britain look like one big gray prison, entombed in mid-20th-century propriety.