Friday, April 07, 2006

PIERREPOINT took my breath away

PIERREPOINT is the kind of movie that leaves you struggling to articulate your emotions when the lights go up in the cinema. To paraphrase my friend, Swedish Philip, with whom I saw this movie, "it affected me inside." I can think of no higher recommendation for any film.

PIERREPOINT is a multi-faceted portrait of England's most prolific executioner, Alfred Pierrepoint. Pierrepoint executed over 600 people in his career in the 1940s and 1950s including Lord Haw Haw, various Nazi war criminals and, perhaps most controversially, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis. He was essentially a good and decent man who had a strong sense of duty and service to his monarch and state. He was also a quietly religious man. He was entirely uninterested in what his victims had supposedly done. It was enough for him that the State had judged them guilty. His vocation, as he saw it, was to deliver them the most efficient, humane and merciful death. And, once they had atoned for their sin, to treat their bodies with dignity and care. Pierrepoint certainly took a sort of school-boy pride in being the quickest to take his victim from cell to noose, or in being picked by "Monty" to administer swift British justice to Nazi war criminals, but somehow his pride does not seem selfish. Indeed, it can be selfless. In the most affecting scene of the movie - moreso because it is factually correct - Pierrepoint has to execute a man for whom he feels a great deal of affection. He knows this will plague his conscience for the rest of his life - despite the fact the man is uncontrovertably guilty - but goes through with the execution anyway. He knows that he can reassure the man, and ensure that his death is painless.

But PIERREPOINT is about more than one man's psychological and emotional journey. It is about the great social change that took place in British society in the 1940s and 1950s. At the start of the film, Pierrepoint is a man who administers Edwardian justice in a world that treats him as a war hero for it. By the time the film closes, the calls for an end to capital punishment are gathering sway and both Pierrepoint and his wife are no longer able to repress the emotional and physical reality of what he has done.

To my mind, this is one of the most amazing scripts that I have seen brought to the screen. The screenwriter lures us into Pierrepoint's world and psyche. I felt that I could finally understand why a good, affable chap could be an executioner, and why, in the end, he could not. Praise must go to every single member of the cast but especially to Timothy Spall, who plays Pierrepoint, Juliet Stephenson, who plays his wife, and to Eddie Marsan who plays "Tish". The production design, photography and score all combine to create the claustrophobic, repressed world of the 1940s and 1950s. (The movie is shot by Danny Cohen, who also shot the wonderful DEAD MAN'S SHOES.) The achievement is all the greater when we learn that the film was shot in four weeks on a shoe-string budget, and on 16mm film.

What more can I say? This is movie making at its finest with real creative talent and artistry devoted to bringing the singular life of a singular man to the screen. Please, do try to see it.

PIERREPOINT: THE LAST HANGMAN premiered at Toronto 2005 and goes on release in the UK today. It goes on limited release in the US on September 15th 2006.

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