With so many offbeat performers stuck in minor roles, what a break it must be for one to be offered center stage. Not just a break, but a vindication, since a number of these actors could bring a backlog of experience to a central performance. English actors like Ray Winstone, who’s ready-made for roles as the “heavy,” and frequent supporting player Judy Dench nailed performances in the Australian Western “The Proposition” and female-centered thriller “Notes on a Scandal,” respectfully, that would be hard to imagine working with other actors. It’s a rare treat that the not-so-GQ Shia LeBeouf has become a lead actor, since his physical presence would more often limit him to quirky sidekick roles. Of all the white men placed on the fringes of such stories, think of all the women and actors of non-white races automatically pushed aside – numerous film narratives waiting to be born.
But we can’t charge director Adrian Shergold for ignoring the promise of such “character actors.” In his “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman,” a biopic about England’s historical executioner of 608 convicts, scripted by Bob Mills and Jeff Pope, Timothy Spall takes center stage. Well known for his work with director Mike Leigh, Spall has cartoonish, hounddog looks and a rich English voice that have landed him minor roles in recent children’s fantasies, including the Harry Potters and “Lemony Snicket.” But the actor’s versatility shows in his skill to make the most out bit parts as various as historical (“The Last Samurai”) and counterculture ones (as a roadie in “Rock Star”).
As a “small” drama focusing on a small cast, “Pierrepoint” becomes quite a vehicle for the versatile Spall. Albert Pierrepoint becomes the premiere executioner of 1930’s England after he shows acumen for quick calculations on a job interview: to match body weight with adjusted noose length is to avoid either an unsuccessful execution or a messy, successful one. It is his duty to whisk prisoners from a waiting room to a dim adjoining room for their hanging, which he does with detached abandon (though afterwards he properly cares for the bodies). With his cold skill, he becomes a man of efficiency, one who can hood and noose a prisoner and drop the trap door in a flash; for a swift hanging is a moral one in the eyes of the British law.
After serving the court for years, his reputation reaches the English Army, who now holds numerous Nazi captives to be executed. Pierrepoint’s services prove appealing, since the Army wants to use the most “moral” means for executing their prisoners of war. Pierrepoint assures that his hanging method, which separates the second and third vertebrae, guarantees instant death. As honorable (and well-paying) as his promotion may be, Pierrepoint is weary to learn that he must execute numerous prisoners a day, a major increase from his previous duties. Through his new position he gains national celebrity, but soon grows uncomfortable in the public eye, especially when his wife (an engaging Juliet Stevenson) wants to open a bar that tributes his new notoriety.
Naturally, Albert’s growing self-awareness – the question of whether he can remain detached from his work – creates narrative tension. At first, he manages by repressing anything job-related when at home. But as he gains visibility as England’s hangman, he grows more aware of what for him has become a routine job. His detachment reminded me of words I once heard from an unidentified crime reporter during a journalism conference. This man argued that when the sight of blood has become so routine for a crime reporter/photographer that it no longer affects him, it is time to quit. For a man like Pierrepoint, who has an even closer relationship with death, such a routine must be mandatory.
As efficient as Pierrepoint may be, Spall commits to humanizing a character who personifies capital punishment. Albert winces when accosted in the streets for executing an allegedly innocent man, and hides when he’s beckoned by an old woman to save her poor, confused son, soon to meet the gallows.
The final conflict that develops, one which pushes an already overwhelmed Pierrepoint to an emotional breaking point, will hardly come as a surprise to savvy viewers. However, Spall lends so much empathy to his role that we too must lay our hearts bare for his character’s dilemma. Pierrepoint’s decision is tragic in that he must stick to his professional code, and that his final act brings a new level of awareness to his wife – a scene in which she fully comprehends what he does for a living, and shrinks away from his touch, is heart-wrenching. Spall brings to life the pathos of an everyman who realizes, too late, that he has mixed with one of the darkest practices of humankind. “Pierrepoint” proves that Spall is more than worthy of future leading roles.