Monday 3 April 2006

Pierrepoint (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

British film about Albert Pierrepoint - among the last generation of British executioners (the alternative title is The Last Hangman). For Pierrepoint (played by Timothy Spall) it is a family business. He takes pride in following in his father's profession and becomes an expert in the technique of hanging, trying to perform the execution in as humane a way as possible. He tries to beat the average of 13 seconds from entering the condemned's cell to death. Pierrepoint is so proficient at it that after the war he is personally recommended to Montgomery to carry out the high-profile hangings after the Belsen concentration camp trials, including the infamous Beast of Belsen. He has to carry out 47 hangings in one week. Over his entire career he executed 608 people - both men and women.

Spall gives the best on-screen performance by a British actor since Jim Broadbent in Iris (2001). He is so moving - combining the ruthless, cold professionalism with a real human conscience. We see him struggling with the morality of what he does, especially when he loses his anonymity after the Belsen executions. He becomes a celebrity and local hero - but gradually the villain as the anti-capital punishment protests grow.

Director Adrian Shergold conducts a perfectly pitched film with innovative cinematography by Danny Cohen. His over-the-shoulder shooting style confronts the audience with the reality of the hangings and his revolving camera makes Pierrepoint's precision seem at times balletic. Nigel Edwards and Reg Mills's sound mixing creates such a vivid atmosphere: you can hear every toke on cigarette or cigar, every chink of a keychain, every last breath. A beautiful, beautiful film - full of the horror and humanity that Pierrepoint faced of his own volition.

This is the best of British cinema: the blue-grey lens filters reflect the bleakness of the 1930s-40s; and yet there is still warmth and humanity in the faces of the cosy pub the Pierrepoints run later in life. Juliet Stevenson gives a wonderful performance as Pierrepoint's wife, Annie, who deals with the knowledge of what her husband does with the same noble stoicism he has to show. There is also a strong supporting performance by Eddie Marsan as Pierrepoint's pub singing partner, Tish.

Nugget: simply one of the best British films I've ever seen. Confident, assured cinema.

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