Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Pierrepoint

– “When I walk into that cell, I leave Albert Pierrepoint outside.”

Albert Pierrepoint was the last British hangman, his retirement bringing a full-stop to the profession. Between the years of 1933 and 1955 he executed 608 people (by this film’s count), including most notably German war criminals after the trials in 1945. Adrian Shergold’s 2005 Pierrepoint or The Last Hangman gives us an incredibly intimate portrayal of an individual torn between rigid functionality and human compassion.

Straight to the site of the action, the film opens with Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spaul) undergoing a training session at Pentonville prison. All the specifics are laid out: how to restrain the prisoner, place the sacking over their head and judge the appropriate length of rope for the particular individual – “get it wrong, and you’ll pull ‘is head orff.” The scenes in the prison are, on the whole, extremely clinical, with the lack of emotion displayed being the most terrifying thing.

These cold scenes are juxtaposed with warm scenes of rural England, with Pierrepoint courting a lady at a sweet shop (Juliet Stevenson). Here we immediately see the warmth of his character, his love of pork chops and his domestic life with his mother.

In a wonderfully handled time-lapse, this turns into a domestic scene with his new wife, Anne from the sweet shop. However during this time lapse, it is also revealed that Pierrepoint takes painstaking notes on the executions he has carried out, never failing to miss an entry. Other than this, Albert keeps his work and home life entirely separate. I mean, you’d have to, right?

This sets up the key tension in Pierrepoint: how can a man who routinely kills other people live a normal life? There is a wholehearted professionalism in the man, driven by a certain competitiveness to boot. We learn that Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman (ah…destiny) and that he was renowned for the speed of his executions, going from restraining the wrists to pulling the lever in 14 seconds. The shadow of the father looms over Albert, who manages to destroy his father’s record, processing someone for death in a mere 7.5 seconds.

For Pierrepoint death is routine; despite being carried out by an individual, the approach is strictly mechanical. Attending the theatre, Pierrepoint watches a news reel on the German war criminals who he has been nominated to execute, including Fritz Klein or ‘Doctor Death’ who as the narrator reels off was responsible for “scientifically murdering” thousands of Jews. Although the motives are poles apart, Albert is haunted by a personal similarity, and we are invited to consider to what extent those who kill en masse have expunged their humanity.

Pierrepoint however makes a complete180’ once he has taken his prisoner’s life, choosing to lay out and wash their bodies himself, because the mortuary “won’t take care of them, would they?”  In Pierrepoint’s mind, death is the price that is paid for their sins, so after death, the body deserves human dignity and respect. This is what keeps Albert from becoming a monster, but nevertheless the moral framework that he brings to his work only adds to his conflicted personality.

There is yet another side to Pierrepoint; the jovial man who sings bawdy songs as a comedic duo with his friend Tish (Eddie Marsan). In a stroke of ominous irony, during their performance Pierrepoint places a white cloth over Tish’s head, immediately reminiscent of the white sacking used in the execution room. This warm Pierrepoint, who eventually agrees to buy the local pub with his wife and form a pillar of the community, wrestles constantly against the numbing effect of his work.

The whole thing is very tightly written, with no scene going amiss. Even those ‘sub-plots’ that seem slightly redundant on the first watch are perfectly designed to feed into the denouement. Timothy Spaul does an incredible job of capturing Pierrepoint’s morally fraught existence, which only gets all the more impressive as the cracks begin to show.

There is an element of ‘ITV drama’ in the aesthetic, which at times prevented me from becoming fully immersed, however this is a very cosmetic issue and was quickly ignored once the story builds in complexity. What Pierrepoint delivers is a fantastic human-interest story that is deserving of a film in itself.

Added to this is an entire moral debate surrounding capital punishment and its effect on the individuals involved. The masterstroke of the movie is that this is never in the foreground and never explicitly judged. Instead, we are merely greeted with a portrait of a man through which both these historical and human considerations can play out. And this is what makes Pierrepoint a tightly-plotted, riveting achievement.

Kill List

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley...

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley…

My attention was drawn to Ben Wheatley due to the recent release of A Field in England; an exceptionally strange film that fits snugly into the genre of 17th century psychedelic war-drama. Talk about a film standing in its own field…ahaha. *ahem.* Anyway, intrigued by this young up-and-coming director, I decided it was time to delve into the odd, oppressive world of Wheatley.

Kill List is Wheatley’s second feature-length film and certainly his most well-known. It follows Jay (Neil Maskell), a slightly gritty family man, who is starting to be ground down by the twin pressures of his marriage and the financial debt looming over his head. An opportunity presents itself however, when his old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend come over for what is to be a painfully awkward dinner. We then learn that Jay and Gal have a shared past in the assassination business, and that a new hit has come up; a job for which Jay comes highly recommended. After he reluctantly accepts, the film follows Jay and Gal’s execution of the job, which leads the duo down a rather dark trail…

Sounds like a relatively bog-standard British crime thriller, right? Well as it turns out, Kill List is one of the most inventive, astonishing and downright harrowing films I have seen in recent years. Trust me, there’s no hyperbole here. From midway through the film I was leaning forward, entranced, my mouth slightly open in disbelief. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I had been hit by a train. Five minutes after the credits had finished rolling, I was still staring at the screen and saying ‘fuck’ under my breath.

Why is it so shocking? Well, the violence for one thing. Some of the scenes in Kill List are just downright nasty, but not in a voyeuristic or stylised way. The setting is just so relatable, with recognisable two-up two-down houses, typical English cul-de-sacs, and Neil Maskell cuts an utterly believably character. When violence does erupt therefore, it is just very close to home, and executed with an ethos of savagery-over-style that makes you believe that this could happen right on your front doorstep. I would like to add the disclaimer that if you are at all squeamish, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Wheatley doesn’t want us to look away from the barbarous acts he portrays, and he has built a film so compelling around it, that it pretty much feels like he’s holding your head to the screen, forcing you to watch.

More importantly however, Kill List shocks because of its structure; namely, its insane defiance of genre expectations. This starts off as a kitchen-sink domestic drama. We are pulled into a world of marital squabbles, drunken bonding and bedtimes stories. Then, a third of the way through the film, it turns into something completely different: a hard-boiled, murky crime thriller. And then… oh, and then… let’s just say it changes into something rather different entirely. This is an acrobatic film, using every tool at its disposal to ease you in and get you comfortable with the characters, providing you with some gripping intrigue, and only then, once you realise it’s got you in its unforgiving talons, it throws the whole goddamn playbook out of the window.

Ben Wheatley has proved himself to be a master manipulator through his form, but the technique isn’t even cheap, because everything else in Kill List stands up to scrutiny. The cinematography is novel and effective, using abrupt cuts and black screens to give a rough-edged, erratic feel that suits the content perfectly. All of the roles are played competently and convincingly, giving the impression of an extremely solid film.

You can clearly see the influence of Shane Meadows in Wheatley; this is a film that owes quite a lot to Dead Man’s Shoes’ ruddy bleakness. But there is much more anger and anarchism in Wheatley’s approach to filmmaking; this is someone who is not afraid to take massive liberties with conventions in order to get his visceral point across. This becomes even more apparent in A Field in England which will be the subject of my next instalment…