Rating 3¾

Directed by Adrian Shergold

Written by Jeff Pope and Bob Mills

Starring Timothy Spall (Albert Pierrepoint), Juliet Stevenson (Annie Pierrepoint), Eddie Marsan (James ‘Tish’ Corbitt), Claire Keelan (Jessie Kelly), Maggie Ollerenshaw (Mary Pierrepoint), Clive Francis (Field Marshal ‘Monty’ Montgomery), Elizabeth Hopley (Dorothea Waddington), Sheyla Shahovich (Irma Grese), Michael Norton (Josef Kramer), Ben McKay (Timothy Evans), and Mary Stockley (Ruth Ellis)

Albert Pierrepoint follows in the footsteps of his father and uncle and becomes an executioner. He attends to the task strictly as a job to be done, taking great pride in his work and ensuring meticulous attention to detail. However, after he receives a personal request from Field Marshal Montgomery to preside over executions in Germany following the war crimes trials at the end of World War II, his name and picture appear in newspapers, making him something of a celebrity and he begins to question what he does, as the psychological impact it has on him and his wife Annie becomes ever harder to bear.


Albert Pierrepoint worked as an Assistant Executioner from 1932, when he was 27 years old, and became a chief executioner in 1941. He is believed to have conducted at least 450 executions (and possibly as many as 608, as quoted at the end of the film) before resigning in 1956 because of a disagreement about his fees. The executions he presided over included those of Josef Kramer, the “Beast of Belson”, and Irma Grese, the “Beautiful Beast” who, at 22 years of age was the youngest woman to be executed under British law in the 20th Century. He also executed William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”) and Derek Bentley, whose execution in 1953 came despite widespread pleas for clemency and is told in the 1991 film ‘Let Him Have It’. Bentley received a posthumous pardon in 1998. These two executions are not referenced in the film, but those of Timothy John Evans in 1950 and Ruth Ellis in 1955 are. Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain and the controversy surrounding her execution lit the flame that would eventually lead to the abolition of the death penalty in 1964. Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966 – Pierrepoint also, in 1953, executed the serial killer John Reginald Christie, who was actually responsible for the killing that Evans had been found guilty of.

‘Pierrepoint’ paints a picture of Britain as a monotonously drab and austere place, which is what it was, and shows Albert Pierrepoint going about his business in a methodical manner, deeming it his responsibility that each hanging be quick and painless and that the bodies of those he executed be treated with respect afterwards, because, as he explained, through their execution they had atoned for their sins. Executioners were not employed full time, but “invited” to preside over individual executions and paid per hanging, so Pierrepoint also worked as a drayman and later owned a pub called Help the Poor Struggler with his wife, using money earned in Germany to buy it – he presided over thirteen hangings in a single day on 13 December 1945 and is thought to have hanged over 200 war criminals in total. Pierrepoint did not tell his future wife Annie about his “other” job when they first met and it was not until 1944, over a year after they were married, that they first discussed it, although she had actually known about it for several years, but chose not to mention it, waiting instead for him to do so.

Timothy Spall is excellent in the role of Albert Pierrepoint, as is Juliet Stevenson, playing his wife, and Eddie Marsan as John ‘Tish’ Corbitt, the friend and regular in their pub who Pierrepoint was later called on to hang. The attention to detail means that the film certainly looks authentic.

I found the film fascinating but quite harrowing to watch and the claim that almost all adults in Britain now would be in favour of a return to the death penalty is, if that statistic is in any way true, a horrific thought. In his autobiography, published in 1974, eighteen years after he presided over his last hanging, Pierrepoint wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people,” although some people have subsequently questioned whether he was being entirely truthful about his stance on capital punishment when he wrote these words.

Albert Pierrepoint died in 1992 and the age of 87. He wife Annie died in 1998 at the age of 93. Contrary to popular belief, Pierrepoint was not Britain’s last executioner (hangings continued to take place for another nine years after he resigned), but he was its most famous.

‘Pierrepoint’ has a 76% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 50 reviews. Roger Ebert made the excellent point that, “The key to the film is in the performances... The utter averageness of the characters, their lack of insight, their normality, contrasts with the subject matter in an unsettling way.” The film’s worldwide box office gross is a little under $640,000.

Review posted on 8 November 2009


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