Adrian Shergold's Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is a biopic of England's most prolific modern executioner, and with a subject like that, tone is all. Shergold goes for a kind of gray-hued miserablism, with thick ironic overtones, which proves to be a miscalculation. Timothy Spall plays Albert Pierrepoint, one of a family of Chief Executioners renowned for their speed, efficiency, and emotional detachment. The movie follows Spall from the day he gets hired to the events that prompt him to quit, focusing primarily on his publicly lauded work hanging Nazi war criminals, and on the British public's growing distaste for capital punishment in the '50s. But the real subject of the movie is pride, particularly Spall's almost comically fussy diligence in the art of killing.
It's only almost comic, though. Shergold and producer-screenwriter Jeff Pope take a certain ghoulish glee in the way Spall's superiors praise his skills, and in the way his wife (Juliet Stevenson) makes sure he looks presentable on execution days. But for the most part, Pierrepoint never breaks out of its tasteful-morality-play mode. Martin Phipps' string-heavy score emphasizes the melancholy toll that ending hundreds of lives extracts from a man, while Shergold and Pope dramatize Spall's growing inability to ignore the frightened humanity of those dangling at the end of his rope.
There's nothing wrong with producing an anti-capital-punishment tract, but Pierrepoint's main problem is that there's nothing surprising about it. Every scene, every line of dialogue, and every bitter revelation is designed to make the point that state-sponsored murder is wrong. Even the moments of levity—like Spall's song-and-dance routine with his favorite pub-mate Eddie Marsan—exist only to maximize the chilling effects of Spall's job. Any broader portrait of the man, his times, or the complexities of crime and punishment are left outside Shergold's frame. Pierrepoint is handsomely crafted and well-acted, but its sense of scale is as constricted as a noose.