Shergold’s extraordinary dramatisation of the life of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last Chief Executioner, is no laff-fest, but neither is it an exercise in morbid fascination. Pierrepoint ‘sprung the trap’ on some 608 men and women in his 24-year career (1932-1956) – Lord Haw Haw, Timothy Evans, Ruth Ellis among them – and the film includes quite enough fatal dispatches for them to weigh a little heavily on the spirits. In fact, Shergold’s film would be hard to watch were it not for a quietly miraculous performance by Timothy Spall as the contained master hangman. Spall not only offers a masterfully understated study in British reserve, professional pride and duty but also, in making palpable the cumulative psychological price his work exacts, ends up bestowing on his character a form of stoic grace.
Although visually Shergold doesn’t altogether transcend the limits of his TV drama heritage, Danny Cohen’s colour-drained period cinematography and Candida Otton’s production design is never less than (to use Pierrepoint’s words about himself) ‘a professional job, well done’. What the film does have, however, is the courage of its dark convictions; it’s a bleak subject and, commendably, the director doesn’t shy away from it. Pierrepoint, in his 1974 autobiography, interestingly declared himself an opponent of capital punishment. Thankfully, screenwriter Jeff Pope resists the temptation to give the film a campaigning or moral spin; rather he grounds the film in character, teasing out not only Pierrepoint’s bottled-up emotions but also, by extension, those of Britain in those grey, pre-‘libertarian’ years. Among the host of very solid performances backing up Spall, that of Eddie Marsan, as Pierrepoint’s sole friend ‘Tish’ Corbitt, deserves special mention.