All the Old Knives’ stars Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, who bring controlled emotion to the film
Secrets, settling scores, nursing grudges, deceit, and recriminations are all part of international espionage. They may also be elements in romantic entanglements in certain cases, particularly in the aftermath of complex relationships. All of this is to imply that both international espionage and love entanglements are based on the unknowability of others.
“All the Old Knives,” a cerebral thriller with an aesthetic sensibility directed by Janus Metz from a script by Olen Steinhauer based on his own book, achieves this goal. Chris Pine plays as Henry Pelham, a CIA case officer sent to interrogate former colleague and covert ex-lover Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who has abandoned international espionage in order to raise a family in the posh surroundings of “Big Little Lies” country in Northern California. (How appropriate.) In their positions as senior commanders, Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne are both underused.
Henry tries to peel from Celia if she had anything to do with a leak at their previous workplace that killed everyone on a hijacked aeroplane over a leisurely meal that is half sentimental reunion and part crafty questioning. Soon, both of their secrets are revealed.
“Borg vs. McEnroe,” a tennis-world psychodrama directed by Metz, is a suitable link since “All the Old Knives” is founded on the back-and-forth volleys of its two major characters. Pine and Newton have a peculiar chemistry that is controlled and repressed, the connection of two people who have been educated to never disclose too much about themselves, yet who are drawn together by something wildly undeniable. The main love scene in the movie is more theatrical than sexual, but it does include a lot of fire and passion that is lacking from the rest of the movie.
Pine’s hair is longer and floppier in the flashbacks, and he prefers layered scarves over fitted suits, which subsequently give way to tailored suits, which is both amusing and endearing. The scenes in the film that focus on Henry and Celia’s history together are less compelling than when they are portraying two old loves who realise they are better off apart but are both plagued by a feeling of what could have been. Unlike other ex-couples, their love history and impending split are fueled by a terrible act of international terrorism.
“All The Old Knives” follows “The Contractor,” a film starring Pine that aimed to combine a home drama with an action thriller, with allusions to Robert Ludlum analogous to “Old Knives'” tributes to John Le Carré. Both films don’t quite achieve their goals, but they do highlight Pine’s charm, fragility, and adaptability as an actor who has much more to give than his leading man looks. It’s easy to ignore the complexity of Newton’s performance here since she’s become such a consistent nuanced actress.
“It’s the things we don’t know that get to me,” Newton says in “All the Old Knives,” a remark that best connects the film’s spy narrative and romantic drama. The film is a captivating notion that doesn’t quite thread the needle of its opposing impulses as neatly as it should, but it makes for the type of adult-oriented narrative one wishes there was more of these days, thanks to the impossibly watchable Newton and Pine.