All The Old Knives

All The Old Knives (2022)

All The Old Knives first published by Sight and Sound, June 2022

Review: Janus Metz’s All The Old Knives takes its title from the 2015 novel by Olen Steinhauer (who also wrote the screenplay) – and if that word ‘old’ promises a throwback to the past, it is referring not just to the reinvestigation of an incident from six years earlier, but also to an ‘old school’ of cinema which is here being revived. For its brand of slick, mid-budget thriller for adults – complete with multiple sex scenes – had its heyday in the Eighties and Nineties, while it owes a special debt to Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), as well as to John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Here veteran CIA agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is tasked by his boss Victor (Laurence Fishburne, significantly of Deep Cover, 1992) with flushing out a mole who, in 2012, had fed information to hijackers on a grounded commercial plane in Vienna – and so he must interview his former Vienna station colleagues Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), to get to the truth of what happened on a fateful day that left a planeload of passengers dead.  

Duplicity is only to be expected in a film about double agency, but All The Old Knives comes with its own dual nature, both in the way that it keeps leaping chronologically from present interviews to past events via a complicated series of interlocking flashbacks, and in its deft switching of genres. Back in 2012, Henry and Celia were not just fellow operatives but passionate lovers, and as Henry meets his ex at an upmarket and eerily empty waterside restaurant near where she now lives with her husband and children in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, the boundaries between spy movie and romance break down. For even if we know from the outset that Celia’s very life is on the line, and that Henry is carefully weighing every word of her story, this is also, to all intents and purposes, two old flames sharing their reminiscences over a dinner date, with fine food, copious local wines and the soft glow of the setting sun all complementing the mood of nostalgic romance.

As parallel narratives from the past are pieced together, love proves also to be at the centre of the Vienna debacle, blinding and compromising agents who must make impossible choices. Like many a mole movie, this is a whodunnit – but the why of what has been done is ultimately more important, and roots these globe-trotting escapades in melodrama both political and personal. 

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Synopsis: California, 2018. CIA Agent Henry Pelham sits down with former colleague/old flame Celia Harrison to determine whether she was the one leaking information to terrorists during a disastrous hijacking incident in Vienna in 2012. Over a long dinner, food, drink and stories are shared, with high stakes for both lovers. 

strap: Janus Metz’s romantic spy thriller is a tale of dinner dates and double agency, served with a bittersweet twist

Anton Bitel