Pierrepoint (15)

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The Independent Culture

Fancy a sombre evening of death, imprisonment and bottled-up emotions in mid-20th-century, working-class England? Why not go for a double bill of Vera Drake and Pierrepoint, two films which share so much of their tone, their look and their cast that they could almost have been intended as companion pieces. Pierrepoint stars Timothy Spall as Albert J Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman. From 1934 to 1956 he executed 608 people, and for most of that time he didn't lose any sleep over it.

He was doing the job his father and uncle had done, and he took pride in how promptly and painlessly he could dispatch condemned men and women. Maybe too much pride. Spall, at his finest, portrays Pierrepoint as a conscientious fellow, without any bloodlust, but not without a sense of cigar-puffing satisfaction when he's recognised as the quickest hangman in the business.

His attitude towards his vocation begins to shift when Field Marshall Montgomery appoints him to execute Belsen's Nazi war criminals, 47 of them in a week. The task makes him an instant folk hero, but as the tide turns against the death penalty in Britain, he becomes a folk villain, too. Looking suspiciously like a television film that's been promoted to the cinema, Pierrepoint could have been more wide-ranging and more fully realised: as it is, the anti-capital-punishment lobby is represented by a few people with placards. All the same, it's compassionate, thoughtful, and never less than absorbing.