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'The Last Hangman' is grim but humane

Timothy Spall (left), as British government executioner Albert Pierrepoint, with Mary Stockley as Ruth Ellis, who was among the estimated 450 people he hanged. (ken mckay/ifc first take)

Some of us -- not a lot, I admit -- have been waiting for the great Timothy Spall movie. "Pierrepont --The Last Hangman " comes close enough to suffice for now. The movie, a gr ay and measured biography of Albert Pierrepoint , who worked until his 1956 retirement as chief executioner for Her Majesty's government, is grim stuff and very much a bookend to "Vera Drake " in its mixture of post war British reserve and ugly reality. Spall makes it work, creating a little man with big and terrible secrets.

The title's a misnomer: Death by hanging continued in Britain until 1964, when capital punishment was abolished. Pierrepoint was the only hangman the public knew, though, because he was so very good at his job. Timid and pear-shaped, a grocery deliveryman by trade, he plied his shadowy second career with such efficiency that the state came to rely on him for swift execution of its duties. He is estimated to have hanged some 450 people, including Ruth Ellis , the subject of the 1985 film "Dance With a Stranger. "

Directed by Adrian Shergold , a British TV veteran, "Pierrepoint" unfolds chronologically, beginning in 1932 as Albert is learning the, ah, ropes. His father and uncle were hangmen and taking up the family trade is important. He quickly learns to compartmentalize himself, leaving "Albert Pierrepoint" outside the execution room and becoming a cold yet oddly gentle instrument of justice the moment he crosses the threshhold.

Like its hero, the movie doesn't flinch for most of its running time. The hangings are depicted with unmelodramatic directness: the whimpering of the condemned, the bag over the head, the short, sharp drop. Pierrepoint doesn't concern himself with the crimes of the guilty. He only wants to break the record for quickest hanging, both for humanitarian reasons and as a point of professional pride. After death is achieved, he unclothes and washes the bodies with tenderness. "She's paid the price," he says of one victim. "She's innocent now."

Along the way, Albert marries Anne (Juliet Stevenson ), like him a timid lower-middle-class Manchester native. They don't speak of what he does for a living, although she's happy to take the proceeds and open a pub. By World War II his reputatation has risen to the point where Field Marshal Montgomery (Clive Francis ) requests Albert's services at the mass executions of German war criminals. He began with the staff of the Belsen concentration camp; eventually he hanged 200 Nazis.

The film treats this as a turning point, both in terms of Pierrepoint's public notoriety and his state of mind. He returns from Germany a hero -- the pub is mobbed -- yet the unrelenting machinery of mass execution slowly breaks his spirit. What differentiates him from his victims, he wonders. It's obvious, yet not so obvious.

"Pierrepoint" loses its grip around this point, even if its lead actor doesn't. There's a preposterous subplot about an unlucky pub acquaintance of Albert's (Eddie Marsan ); it seems like arrant fictionalizing on the part of screenwriters Jeff Pope and Bob Mills , even though it apparently actually happened. (Note to filmmakers: If something seems too bizarre to be true, that's how it will play.)

Spall keeps a bead on this fascinating little man, though, even as Albert comes apart at the seams. The actor first lurched into many moviegoers' consciousnesses as a wannabe restaurateur in Mike Leigh's "Life is Sweet " (1990), a gauche rhinocerous so inept and needy you could barely look at him. Since then he has worked steadily, and your kids know him as Peter Pettigrew in the "Harry Potter " movies.

That's great for his bank balance, but "Pierrepont" serves notice that Spall's also an actor of nuance and heart, one who knows the greatest revelations often come from the smallest gestures. (Stevenson knows this, too, and she makes Anne Pierrepoint a figure of beautifully small-minded sympathy.)

As he settles into middle age, Spall's features are settling with him. He's becoming jowlier, more the doughty English bulldog; he could pass for Alfred Hitchock's shady younger brother. Yet there's a sorrow in this actor always threatening to break free, and the drama of "Pierrepoint" is in watching it rise to the surface. By the end, Spall embodies Albert Pierrepoint's rueful 1974 statement that "capital punishment, in my view, accomplishes nothing but revenge. The fruit of my labor has left a bitter aftertaste."

Who better than a hangman to know?

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to movies/blog.


Pierrepoint -- The Last Hangman

Directed by: Adrian Shergold

Written by: Jeff Pope and Bob Mills

Starring: Timothy Spall , Juliet Stevenson , Eddie Marsan

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 94 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing images, nudity, brief sexuality)