It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Timothy Spall has been graced by nature with a face at once morose and discontented, although when he smiles, it is like the first day of spring. In "Pierrepoint, the Last Hangman," he plays Albert Pierrepoint, the last official chief hangman for the United Kingdom, credited with at least 435 executions. He kept a meticulous journal, with neatly ruled columns for name, date, place, length of rope and total time required. He was an exemplary civil servant, the best at his trade, and when the right man was required to hang more than 200 Nazi war criminals, Field Marshall Montgomery personally asked him to perform the task.
By the nature of his job, a hangman remains anonymous, and Pierrepoint preferred it that way. His everyday job was delivering provisions for a grocery wholesaler, and when an execution came along, he traveled to the prison by train, spent the night, and was given his expenses and a hot meal in addition to his fee of about $8. Pierrepoint was the third member of his family to work as a hangman and took pride in his system of calculating the exact length of rope to use on each condemned prisoner. By measuring their height and weight and estimating their neck muscles by their occupations, he aimed to kill them instantly by breaking the spine between and second and third vertebrae. He was thus spared the embarrassment of a client still alive and strangling, or a dead one with his head snapped off.
Adrian Shergold's film of Pierrepoint's life paints a portrait of respectable working-class mediocrity with a secret at its center; Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" (2004) was a similar, if more nuanced, portrait of a quiet housewife who was an abortionist. While still a grocery drayman, Pierrepoint, already past 30, shyly proposes marriage to possibly the first girl to go out with him to the cinema. Annie (Juliet Stevenson) continues to work in a tobacconist's and keeps a comfy little home for him, all teapots and footrests, china Scottie dogs, evenings around the wireless, and for dinner, "your favorite -- pork chop."
The movie is unflinching in watching Pierrepoint at work. He always follows the same routine, designed as a time-and-motion study to escort the prisoner from his cell to his doom with no time to realize what is happening. He handcuffs the client, says "follow me, sir," leads the way across the corridor and leaves the prisoner standing on the trap without quite realizing it. A white hood is whipped from Pierrepoint's jacket pocket, put over the client's head, followed by the noose, and a lever is pulled. Albert's father's average was 13.5 seconds per execution. Albert dispatches one client in less than eight.