Timothy Spall as Albert Pierrepoint, the most prolific hangman in England’s history, has an enlightened porcine appearance that serves the role and the film well. As he receives the training in the dark craft of executing men by the neck on behalf of the state, he stares on with dour intensity, a mute animalistic gaze that somehow betrays a sort of unarticulated awe. His fellow trainee, who wisecracks his way through the demonstration, petrifies at the crucial moment when they are called on to actually execute their first prisoner. He’s physically sickened and repulsed by the payment he receives which he thrusts into Pierrepoint’s face. His reaction is failingly human. Pierrepoint’s dour professionalism and refusal to engage with the prisoners as human beings is the strength that will be his downfall.
Called upon to execute the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust, he is flattered by Field Marshall Montgomery’s personal appeal, then staggered by the volume of the task. Upon his return, the country’s mood changes and Pierrepoint, happily married, yet unhappily gaining notoriety, is on a collision course with a type of stark truth he believed he had inured himself to. The melodramatic denoument serves the film ill, but the power it had generated up until then is undeniable.