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Ghost Canyon

'Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman'
(Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, et al / DVD / R / (2006) 2007 / Genius Ent.)

Overview: Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle before him, Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) joins the 'family business'. He becomes the most feared and respected executioner in Britain, hanging over 450 people before his sudden resignation in 1956.

DVD Verdict: Capital punishment in Britain gets the Vera Drake treatment in 'Pierrepoint – The Last Hangman,' told from the perspective of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most famous executioner, who carried out over 400 hangings from 1932 to 1956. Director Adrian Shergold credits Leigh as a London theater mentor, and star Timothy Spall, a frequent Leigh Everyman, recalls here his subtle portrayal in Leigh’s All or Nothing.

Even as his secret and part-time job takes its toll on his colleagues, Pierrepoint’s precise and calm demeanor stays focused on his professionalism. His pride centers around his special formula – calculations of height, weight and body type passed on from his father and uncle for the length and type of rope needed to accomplish the quickest death (down to seven seconds for the most anxious convict) and the most painless as possible.

After executions, moving scenes provide sympathetic insights, depicting his care in washing and preparing the naked, now “innocent,” bodies. It is more startling to suddenly see him relax at a pub performing music hall tunes in a duo as “Tosh” with his drinking buddy he knows only as “Tish” (a sweet Eddie Marsan).

In the flush of post-war patriotism, the British populace salutes Pierrepoint as a war hero. But anti-capital punishment sentiment gradually impinges on Pierrepoint’s duties, consciousness, and public perception, especially the protests surrounding the last woman hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis (whose 1955 case was dramatized in Dance with a Stranger), and Timothy Evans, whose later exoneration inspired the film 10 Rillington Place and increased pressure towards abolition of the death penalty for murder in the UK in 1965.

While it is dramatically predictable that Pierrepoint’s rigid self-control will at some point break, writers Jeff Pope and Bob Mills telescope facts and exaggerate situations for heightened effect, as usual for biopics, from the subtitle (a couple of executioners continued their work after Pierrepoint) to his relationship with a murderer.

Pierrepoint’s 1974 autobiography is quoted at the close: "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge.” But in later interviews, he changed his mind again about capital punishment as Britain’s crime rate increased. Co-produced for television by Granada in Britain and PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, this IFC release is pure hypnotic wonderment from the day to today. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs, but comes with no Special Features.