The 'film' is split into three acts: the first showing hangman Albert Pierrepoint effectively learning his trade, determined to do as good a job as his father had before him, albeit anonymously; the second showing his public 'outing' after executing 48 Nazi criminals in Germany at Lord Montgomery's request; and the third focusing on what happens when he suddenly discovers that the person he has to hang is someone he knows and regards as a friend.
Timothy Spall, always a class act, carries the whole weight of the film on his shoulders with what would, for any other actor, probably be counted as a career-best performance, but for Spall is just par for the course. It's a wonderfully subtle, moving performance that conveys the changes the character goes through as his ability to separate his work from his life changes. Juliet Stevenson, perhaps a little TOO familiar to viewers through her appearances in what seems like every Granada TV production going, plays Albert's rather hard-nosed and ambitious wife. She turns in a strong performance as the woman who refuses to discuss what it is her husband does for a living, even when he makes it painfully obvious he needs someone to talk to about it. Many familiar faces from different Granada TV shows turn up in minor parts, and for British audiences this can be very distracting - eg I spent half the film trying to remember exactly where I'd seen Pierrepoint's German-based assistant before (it turned out to be in HBO's Rome, playing the part of Brutus) when really one should be following what's happening on screen.
Pierrepoint is a film that's more about character than any real plot, and it raises some difficult questions about moral choices, and the price of those choices on the human soul. While the film doesn't make for comfortable viewing - focusing on Spall's 'work' for much of its duration - it's an impressive dramatic piece that's well scripted and, for the most part, well directed.
I'm not convinced it needed a theatrical release though and it does feel far more like a Sunday night 'two hour' (with adverts) drama series for the TV than a 'proper' film. There are some brave attempts in the cinematography at giving the small drama a 'big screen' feel, but I'm finding this recent obsession with over-use of desaturated film with ridiculously over-tinted green effect (did someone watch Capote when giving this film its final spit and polish?) irritating to the extreme. When white painted cell walls have a moss-coloured sheen and everything is so dark and murky it's hard to make anything out, things have gone too far. Viewers know they're watching a dark drama and really don't need everything to look dark green as some sort of designer's idea of 'subtly' conveying this in 'the movie's color palette design' (excuse my American spelling of 'color', but I think America is where a lot of this pretentious justification hails from!)
The British TV origins of the drama become evident when looking at the extra's - there aren't any. Not even a trailer, which given the rather high asking price, is taking the piss somewhat. One is forced to conclude that although this is an excellent piece well worth viewing, it would have been seen by more people if it had simply aired on terrestrial TV. As it is, my recommendation would be to avoid the over-priced vanilla DVD and either rent it if available cheaply or wait for the inevitable TV screening at some future date.