PLOT: Henry and Celia are ex-lovers and spies whose lives become intertwined once again when Henry is tasked with getting information about the hijacking of Royal Jordanian Flight 127. The terrorist threat ended with all onboard being killed and it’s a disaster that may have been aided by someone on the inside. During a dinner that reunites the two, the twist and turns of the past will have a direct impact on their present.
REVIEW: All the Old Knives is a competently directed thriller from director Janus Metz Pedersen and his masterstroke is letting his two leads just sit there and play. The screenplay from Olen Steinhauer, who is adapting his own book of the same name, is a wonderful game of cat and mouse between Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton and they’re 100 percent committed to portraying equal parts passion and uncertainty. The film is at its best when we’re watching their characters chat over dinner and look back on the past. We could’ve gotten all the history we needed from the pair just from these scenes without the necessity of the flashbacks to fill in the blanks. That’s how skilled these two are. They paint a picture through clever back and forth dialogue and blistering on-screen chemistry. A vast majority of All the Old Knives works because of them and things only threaten to go down to familiar territory when the focus sometimes turns to the hijacking that ultimately tore them apart.
We can get a taste of the hijacking of Royal Jordanian Flight 127 at the start of the film. It’s on display while members of the CIA team watch in horror during its final moments. Celia (Newton) flees from the room as if she knows more than it seems and Henry (Pine) follows her in earnest. It plants the seed that something more is going on here before the film jumps in time.
It’s discovered that one of the agents from the CIA leaked information that led to the hijacking. Henry is tasked by CIA Chief Victor Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) to find the mole amongst his former co-workers and this puts him right back in the sights of Celia. Her life has changed considerably since the event. She’s married and has a kid now but when Henry reaches out to her to chat over dinner and drinks, she attends. All of this takes place at a cliffside restaurant in Carmel where it becomes clear that the romance is still very much alive but so is a lot of pain and distrust.
The early engagement between Henry and Celia is somewhat playful. We see that these two are very at ease with each other and the time apart hasn’t made them miss a beat. The script plays with some on-the-nose innuendo, such as when Henry gets Celia to try a strip of his bacon from her, but somehow the performers sell this as something sexy and not humorous. Once the dinner turns into an interrogation as night falls, the exchanges are much more pointed. Through this back-and-forth cat and mouse game, the audience has to figure out who is fooling who, which is a surprisingly difficult task. I was left guessing until the very end and it really didn’t wrap up as I expected.
The dinner scenes are the best of the film. We’re watching two pros, both the characters and the actors, bounce off each other like masters during a tennis match. This is easily one of Chris Pine’s best performances of him. He presents a soft and collected front but during a couple of trips to the bathroom, you see his resolve from him begin to break. This meeting isn’t easy for him and Pine plays that struggle well. Individually stronger is Thandiwe Newton, who has never had an issue with her emoting in any of her roles. Celia is strong but the situation also makes her very vulnerable. Once it becomes clear this is becoming an interrogation, she goes with it, but her emotions are very much on her sleeve when Henry expresses the need to know why she left him all those years ago.
Newton’s best moments are towards the end of the film when she simply breaks and isn’t afraid to leave it all on the table. Together, Pine and Newton are pure fireworks. You want the film to just stay with them the entire time and when the story needs to give them a bit of a break, you’re anticipating when you’ll get to see them again. The supporting turns from the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce are serviceable but this remains a showcase for Pine and Newton.
Stylistically the film is simple yet intimate and the mood changes accordingly depending on the time period we’re in. When we’re catching up with the characters in the past during their time in the CIA, the film has a very cold and blue-ish gray look that captures the stillness and desperation of the escalating threat. The more intimate scenes during the dinner are lit in a way that captures the beauty of the cliffside restaurant they’re occupying but once the darkness rolls in, the lighting is soft and focused on the faces of its stars.
All The Old Knives may not reinvent the wheel for thrillers dealing with a terrorist threat but its decision to primarily focus on the performances of its two leads raises the bar. It’s a credit to Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton that they capture our attention and make us forget about any of the film’s shortcomings. This is a cerebral and complex adult drama that is navigated by a pair of performances that make this a spy game worth playing.