All the Old Knives (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.

My Take – While the spy genre continues to be dominated by globetrotting action-packed thrillers erected on massive scales, thankfully on the flip side, there are still some filmmakers who are still interested in shedding light on intelligence work that requires more brain than brawn.

Technically, on the surface, this latest entry in the overcrowded genre (not that I am complaining), that has been directed by Janus Metz Pedersen (Borg vs McEnroe) and is based on the 2015 book by Olen Steinhauer, who also wrote the film, bears plenty in common with other entries like terrorist threats, globetrotting locations and double-crossings, however it also contains the now rare and distinct John le Carré flavor, making it closer to films like The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), termed as espionage potboilers of an earlier era.

Leaving all the heavy-lifting to the actors with crisp dialogues, minus any action and a seamless flashbacks route, you’re immediately invested in not just uncovering the mole, but what really transpired in the romance and the psycho-sexual drama underpinning it all.

Yes, the film’s ending may not work for everyone as the resolution is not as loud as we are used to, but director Janus Metz Pedersen and writer Olen Steinhauer deserve praise for their commitment to explore their old-school sentimentality and for serving a delicious, slow-cooked thriller, where the closer we’re forced to look, the more we sense that everyone is not who they say they are.

Beginning in 2012 with a terrorist hijacking of the Turkish Alliance Airline Flight 127 which results in mass tragedy, the story follows Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), a CIA agent, who now after eight years has been charged by Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), the Vienna station chief, to reopen the file on the situation. Mainly as Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka), the suspected terrorist behind the act and Pelham’s ex-source, who had been recently captured, disclosed that he had a mole inside the station before dying.

With proof that a phone call was made to a Tehran number from the Vienna station, more specifically from the office of the now retired senior analyst Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), Henry forces him to go back through all details, some of which are uncomfortably personal.

However, that doesn’t compare to how personal the next interview hits, as Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) was not just Henry’s fellow agent, but also his lover, who left him without a word on the day of the tragedy.

The result is a complex confrontation over a photographic perfect meal with dizzying flashbacks to Vienna and to Henry’s service in Moscow 12 years before that. Being a deliberately old-school spy film, that favors dialogue-driven tension over gun-fights or action, the lines between the personal and professional lives of the spies begin to blur. Everyone seems to be dragging baggage of their past life and a long and thankless career spent defending one’s nation from the shadows.

Routinely cutting between two sets of interviews, as they strain themselves for details around the events of that fateful day, we are fed information of how that day eventually unfolded resulting in the deadly suicide attack. The film works in numerous flashbacks to the relationship between Henry and Celia, and it’s through these that we come to understand their connection and the type of people they are.

But ultimately, it’s their meeting at the fancy restaurant with the breathtaking view that serves as the key to the movie and the story. In fact, much of the drama simply unfolds in meeting rooms, restaurants or rainy pubs, and director Janus Metz Pedersen is clearly interested in depicting the nuts and bolts of espionage as much as anything: meeting sources, establishing trust, strategizing, negotiating. The result is powerful and suspenseful, even though we more-or-less know the outcome of the hijacking, if not the mole.

It also helps that all the actors are in fine form here. Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton particularly shows how impressive they are in the right role. Pine lends the film his swagger and delivers in spades, exuding the trauma Henry has endured with rousing earnestness, both professionally and personally, as he’s still very much not over Celia and doesn’t even try to disguise it.

While Newton excels remarkably in keeping you guessing throughout over Celia’s innocence while shedding light on the impact of the hijacking upon her dwindling mind frame.

In supporting roles, Jonathan Pryce is excellent as a spy in his twilight years, Orli Shuka does a fine job as a character filled with one too many grey shades, and Laurence Fishburne is reasonably impactful despite limited screen time. On the whole, ‘All the Old Knives’ is a deliciously compelling slow burn spy thriller anchored by a pair of stunningly charming performances.

Directed –

Starring – Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne

Rated – R

Run Time – 101 minutes

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