Politics. Religion. Pineapple on pizza. These are all topics many people don’t feel comfortable talking about in mixed company. Amongst the vast swathes of points that could fall under the subject of ‘politics’ (most things in life come down to it in one way or another) that causes awkward silence if brought up in mixed company and furious vitriol if brought up online, is capital punishment.
Naturally – the act of state-sponsored executions is a divisive topic, one you’ll be glad to hear I won’t be delving into in too much depth, but which serves as a key talking point in this film. I wouldn’t even say that the movie itself took any particular stance on the matter. One or two scenes could be seen as the director/writer sympathising with the anti-capital punishment cause, but I would hardly say that this was a concrete stance. It is all reasonably even-handed on the morality of the death penalty.
The film documents the life and times of the titular Pierrepoint, Albert Pierrepoint, that is. It dramatises the events in his life, which lead to him being regarded as Britain’s most notorious hangman, responsible for the executions of over 600 people throughout his career, including several Nazi war criminals. It also shows the effects such a job takes on a person’s private life and mental health, covering the period up until his retirement in the 1950s.
Like most biopics, I got the feeling that Pierrepoint was being somewhat economical with the truth (that’s the most diplomatic way I can put ‘more fiction than fact’), and while this may be a deal-breaker for some, it is not so for me. I’m here to be told an entertaining story; I don’t mind if you shift some things around in the real-life story to make things more interesting. That being said, however, it was still noticeable to me, and after a little bit of light research, I found my hunch to be true. Although the scene I thought was most likely to be a fabrication was indeed true, so real-life can sometimes be just as unbelievable as fiction.
Speaking of the narrative, I enjoyed how the story spans over a few decades, encompassing several different sensibilities and a shift in public feeling. As previously mentioned, there are a few scenes documenting the execution of Nazi war criminals. Still, I wouldn’t describe the film as a ‘war film’ as WW2 isn’t happening throughout the whole narrative, and when it is, it is just in the background, alluded to briefly, rather than lingered on. As someone who has spent a lot more time than is necessary watching films about World War 2, I appreciate this. It helped me get a better feeling of the time immediately before and after the war, and such offered up some new perspectives.
The cast is top-notch, too, lead by the consistently underrated Timothy Spall and featuring the equally underappreciated Eddie Marsan. It makes the most of what it has with very few key characters, focusing on a select few’s struggles and lives rather than cast its net too wide. It allows the story to focus primarily on important characters and relationships, rarely over-complicating itself with side-plots. This narrowed focus also helps the film’s pacing, clocking in at just over ninety minutes. The film doesn’t waste any of those minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome—an increasingly rare commodity in modern cinema.
Timothy Spall is on top form in this film. Imbuing him with quiet dignity and yet still showing enough expression to make clear his inner conflict that for the most part mainly bubbles under the surface, hiding behind carefully concealed expressions, or betrayed by a look in his eye. Although the character is not predominantly an outwardly expressive man, you can read a lot about his feelings just by his facial expressions and tone of delivery. All of which is a credit to Spall, who has quietly built a reputation over the decades as one of Britain’s most reliable actors.
Eddie Marsan is also a notable addition to the cast. Many people are likely to recognise his face more than his name, but he has become more familiar to me over the last few years. While the arc of his character in the film is its most predictable aspect, it is still well-performed. His nature is timid, some might say even pathetic. He is the figure of the downtrodden, heart-broken man in love, and the end of his story is incredibly poignant, leading to Albert finally confronting what his job means in his own mind. This is the part of the film that I mentioned earlier which seemed unbelievable but was actually, broadly speaking, true. It ultimately tips the movie’s balance from being a dry re-telling of an interesting life to an emotionally resonant tale of a man whose job requires him to occupy an almost impossible moral quandary.
As the film wears on, it starts to delve deeper into capital punishment’s morality, presenting us with facsimiles of protesters from the time. It does do an excellent job of showing both sides in a sympathetic light, however. We are led to believe that those who oppose hangings are not simply rabble-rousing do-gooders but that they might be right. In the same way, however, it does not show Albert as being a bad man because of his job. Instead, it shows us, and tells us, the many complexities he believes his position to have. In other words, it isn’t a film that patronises its audience. It may have its own feeling on the topic, but it doesn’t want to lead your interpretation. It is merely presenting you with both sides to inform your own thinking.
Although it is well-acted and scripted, I wouldn’t say the film was anything special in the technical department. It certainly has nice settings and is shot competently, but its aesthetic is relatively dry and dull. It pushes no boundaries and is perfectly acceptable in terms of telling the story it wants to tell. It starts to accompany the emotional resonance well towards the end, but for the most part, there is minimal visual flair in how it is shot. Although I suppose, if that’s the films most significant problem, then it really doesn’t have all that much to worry about.
In conclusion, Pierrepoint is an interesting story, well-told, and acted with a surprising amount of emotional heft. It uses a controversial subject matter, but it doesn’t feel like it is pushing a specific agenda, and it is all the better for it, as it leaves the big moral questions in the hands of its viewers. Despite not being the most exciting thing to look at, it still provides an engaging 90 minutes of entertainment, driven by a strong central performance. It’s a surprisingly impactful watch that has sadly gone under-the-radar for many for quite some time, and I can only hope it is reassessed by many soon, as I think it will take many by surprise.