Monday, January 17, 2011

Film Notes: Pierrepoint

Pierrepoint is the moody and brooding biopic of Britain's most high-profile and prolific hangman. The film simply - but with great effect - tells the story of how Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) joined this unusual family trade, and became the very best. Ultimately though it tells the story of the effect that this dark-art had on him.

Spall is spellbinding in the role of the taciturn Yorkshire publican, who prided himself on the speed, and efficiency of his executions. A botched hanging either decapitates the condemned if the drop is too long, or leaves them being strangled if too short. Pierrepoint didn't botch them, but killed them with an accuracy that was remarkable and record-breaking speed which he claimed caused no pain and little distress. Spall, exposes this complex character through a thousand nuances of non-verbal communication for every line of script, and reveals a man who curiously fights for the painless dignified exit of all his victims. These included several notorious murderers, as well as enormous numbers of Nazis convicted of war-crimes and crimes against humanity. Apparently Montgomery personally summoned Pierrepoint to Germany to show the world that British executions were the most 'humane'.

When Pierrepoint dropped enormous numbers of the staff who ran Belsen from his gallows, he was perhaps at the height of his powers. Hailed a public hero and for the first time well paid, he was the dispatcher who was cleaning up Europe. The film charts the unravelling of this cosy-consensus, as several factors coincide to undermine Pierrepoint's detached self-confidence. Public opinion began to change and the hero became a villain; the realisation that he killed 'for money' began to play on his conscience, while the sheer volume of executions following the war-crimes tribunals disturbed him. His wife (brilliantly portrayed by Juliet Stevenson) refuses to share the executioner's psychological burden, won't talk about the deed - but diligently counts the receipts and checks the payments. Finally though, the improbable but apparently true, story of Pierrepoint's execution of an old acquaintance broke down his psychological detachment, forcing him to deny that in reality he could ever really 'leave himself outside' the execution chamber. Finally, in his autobiography in the 1970s, Pierrepoint expressed strong doubts about the validity of capital punishment.

This film is carried along by Spall's absolutely stunning performance, ably assisted by Stevenson, and a good supporting cast. The narrative itself does not contain a thrilling plot - but focuses instead on the character development of the main protagonist which is what makes Spall's acting so important. All this is set against a backdrop of grim prisons, peeling paint and meticulous recreations of Britain at War and during the austerity period, which add enormously to the atmosphere. Clever use of camera angles so that some scenes are viewed with detachment as 'clinical', while other scenes are seen at eye-level from the view of the characters - brings home the personal and human drama of the events. The 'state' views execution from 'above' - total detachment. However we are also required to look through the noose at Pierrepoint - the condemned's view; and at the condemned from his angle, back through the same noose. The delicately mournful soundtrack is the final element in making up this terrific film.

This is deeply thought-provoking, moving and gripping stuff and the film raises countless questions which 'hang 'em, flog 'em' element of the tabloid press must answer. So many films are let down by one rogue element which fails to maintain the standard of the rest of the film; a weak plot line, a bit of over-acting, some naff dialogue, or bad directing. This film is consistently very, very good in all departments, raises and discusses serious issues in a sensible manner and provides a perfect foundation for Spall and Stevenson's quite brilliant performances.

No comments: