Albert Pierrepoint was the most prolific hangman in British history,
responsible for the executions of more than 600 people. He developed
his own system of efficiency and cleanliness, and was hailed as the
“Avenging Angel” when he executed dozens of Nazis after World War II. It’s a stunning history, and capital punishment continues to be a
contentious issue. So why is this movie so damn boring? If this is a
by-the-book biodoc, then it shouldn’t be gaudily dramatized with
Pierrepoint (Spall) having to hang someone he knows. If it is a loose
retelling, then it should include some insight. But it’s neither, and
that ambivalence means the film never sets a tone, neither for itself
nor for most of its characters.
The creepy brutality of the hangings—which we see over and over and
over again—is self-evident, but Pierrepoint seems clinically detached
from the work, which you’d have to be. How does he cope? Uh, he…just
does. His change of heart at the end seems not to come from a crisis of
conscience but from his distaste for notoriety. The jovial Strauss
waltz that plays while he executes war criminals is a jarring,
misguided attempt to inject emotional range into the film, but it
doesn’t make sense—is that Pierrepoint’s glee we’re listening to?
Britain’s? Ours? The film’s? Pierrepoint’s saving grace is Spall’s twitchy, evocative
performance, which lends the title character a sense of humanity
otherwise absent in the story, but even his phenomenal turn isn’t
enough to dig the film out of its bleak, bland hole.