Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton in Amazon’s ‘All the Old Knives’: Film Review

Janus Metz directs this romantic espionage thriller about a former couple at the center of a CIA investigation, also featuring Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce.

What starts out with the promise of a modern take on Three Days of the Condor-type territory — with an American intelligence agency looking for a scapegoat to erase an international embarrassment — ends up boxing itself into a two-character, single-setting compartment that could almost be a stage play in All the Old Knives. Despite the static nature of much of the action, the classy leads and European sophistication of Danish filmmaker Janus Metz’s elegant direction make this adaptation of spy novelist Olen Steinhauer’s 2015 book of the same name sufficiently compelling to find a streaming audience on Amazon, where it debuts April 8.

The principal draw is Chris Pine, easing into salt-and-pepper maturity like a well-tailored suit, and Thandiwe Newton, wearing her character’s poise and coolly appraising intelligence with similar style. They play former lovers reunited in an uneasy encounter eight years after a deadly hijacking that occurred under their watch when they were agents in the CIA’s Vienna bureau.

All the Old Knives

The Bottom Line

Spy vs. spy, over dinner.

Release date: Friday, April 8
Cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce
Director: Janus Metz
Screenwriter: Olen Steinhauer, adapted from his novel

Rated R,
1 hour 42 minutes

The high-tension opening briefly recaps the events of that day in 2012 as field operative Henry Pelham (Pine) dashes about the Austrian capital questioning sources while the clock ticks for more than 100 passengers on board a commercial flight taken over by terrorists. In the CIA office headed by station chief Victor Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), Celia Harrison (Newton) seems especially disturbed when news arrives that everyone on board has been killed, including one of their agents.

Henry believes they have gone over every frustrating aspect of the failed rescue attempt in the years since. But the capture of Chechen extremist Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka) and his revelation during interrogation that he had help from a mole inside the CIA’s Vienna office prompts Wallinger to reopen the case. That means sending Henry to interview not just ex-colleagues like cagey former deputy station chief Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), now retired in London, but also Celia, who was his lover at the time of the hijacking.

Like Compton, Celia has long since quit the agency and is living a comfortable life in Northern California with a husband and two kids. She agrees to meet for a meal at an upscale restaurant in coastal Carmel, where Steinhauer’s adaptation remains for the duration, nimbly flashing back to various points in the past, pertaining both to the investigation and to their passionate personal history.

Audiences accustomed to the rapid-fire pacing of, say, the Bourne movies might find Metz’s more methodically probing approach too measured, even sedate. But the storytelling moves along at a steady hum, maintaining intrigue as different pieces of the puzzle come together. The reopened investigation also provides convincing license for both Henry and Celia to recap events without falling into the narrative trap of having characters regurgitate known information strictly for the audience’s benefit.

Pine and Newton excel at revealing the extent to which both Henry and Celia — beneath their carefully guarded exteriors — are haunted by the past, and by the abrupt way in which the hijacking derailed their blossoming relationship. Their respective backgrounds add shading to the character portraits, as does the sorrow each carries with them about the bad decisions of that day and the heavy weight of its casualties. The lingering sparks of romantic connection between them further complicate those feelings.

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s graceful camerawork captures the key encounter and the painful memories it stirs up with a somber gaze that fits the wintry atmosphere, letting the plotting do the work of building tension and modulating suspense. And the melancholy score by Jon Ekstrand and Rebekka Karijord shifts effectively into atonal sawing strings as disturbing truths surface in a twist that comes in the closing half-hour, drastically upping the stakes and shifting the perspective on everything we’ve learned up to that point.

The film’s prevailing solemnity ultimately makes its shards of paranoia and disclosures about the compromises of counterterrorism agents more unsettling, and the brutal finality of its outcome more chilling.

Metz — whose background in documentaries informed his first feature, Borg vs. McEnroe, a satisfying sports bio-drama overshadowed at the time by another tennis movie, Battle of the Sexes — is less interested in the conventional mechanics of the globe-hopping espionage thriller than the intimate psychological details. Which ultimately makes this a character study about the type of people drawn into the intelligence agency business, the qualities it requires of them to stick with that career and the ways in which the work shapes their identities.

Pine is terrific, seeming to age over the course of the meal and become visibly more haggard as his options narrow, while Newton superbly balances professional detachment with the emotional debris underneath. The careful negotiations of Henry and Celia — shot by Christensen in searching closeups with shifting light as the evening draws on — are a kind of cat-and-mouse game, but one in which both of them dread getting the upper hand. That makes the dark conclusion all the more affecting.

Full credits

Distribution: Amazon
Production companies: Barry Linen Motion Pictures, Big Indie Pictures, Chockstone Pictures, Churchill Films, Entertainment One, Jackson Pictures, Nick Weschler Productions
Cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Orli Shuka, Corey Johnson, Jonjo O’Neill, Ahd, David Dawson, Nasser Memarzia, Gala Gordon
Director: Janus Metz
Screenwriter: Olen Steinhauer, adapted from his novel
Story: Charlie McDowell, Jason Segel, Justin Lader, Andrew Kevin Walker
Producers: Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Nick Weschler, Matt Jackson
Executive producers: Chris Pine, Kate Churchill, Zev Foreman, Joanne Lee, Drew Comins, Mark Gordon, Richard Hewitt, Neil Burger
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Stephanie Collie
Music: Jon Ekstrand, Rebekka Karijord
Editors: Mark Eckersley, Per Sandhol
Casting: Jina Jay

Rated R, 1 hour 42 minutes