Thandiwe Newton and Chris Pine star as former spies and lovers in Janus Metz’s cat-and-mouse thriller
Dir. Janus Metz. US. 2022. 101 mins.
Janus Metz (Borg Vs. McEnroe) returns to the big screen with this sexpionage thriller scripted by Olen Steinhauer from his novel of the same name. A sparse, introspective little piece, at least on the page, it tells the story of two battle-scarred CIA spies, former lovers, who meet years later to try to discover who betrayed whom during a failed operation in Vienna. On screen, they’re played by Thandiwe Newton, and, sexily, if less convincingly, Chris Pine — not a man you would fail to notice if he were following you. The result may not lie in the realm of Richard Burton believability (as Alec Leamas by way of LeCarre), or even Third Man high noir (this is Vienna after all), but it is silkily persuasive in its own hot-sleuthy way.
All The Old Knives has just the right touch of believability mixed with watchability to make it a small-screen escapist success.
Backed by Amazon and set for small-screen exposure after a brief simultaneous theatrical run from April 6, All The Old Knives is essentially a talky chamber piece glossed-up for wider appeal - there is no action to this thriller. It may be balancing a lot of A-list charisma and technical talent on an intimate premise, but there is enough chemistry between its two leads to go the distance. Newton, typically excellent, has sufficient grit to sand down Pine’s film-star smoothness, even when Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera looks to idolise those cheekbones and set a colour palette against his eyes.
Steinhaur’s script helps, spelling out its narrative beats slowly and making audiences work to piece together the plot. It all starts in Vienna, as many a good spy yarn does, and a flashback, to the day a hostage crisis went badly wrong — Turkish Airlines Flight 127, its 100 occupants all murdered by jihadists on the runway in Austria despite the best efforts of the CIA’s Vienna Station, headed up by Victor (Laurence Fishburne), staffed by the clandestine lovers Henry (Pine) and Celia (Newton) and with Jonathan Pryce as a shambling senior spy named Bill.
Cut to eight years later and Victor, possessed with new information about a possible mole, calls in hotshot Henry - a multi-lingual polymath with big hair and a fondness for sweeping coats - to figure out exactly what went wrong back then. Henry heads to Carmel-by-the-sea, California, where his old flame Celia, now married with three children and out of the game, currently resides. They meet for a very long lunch in a picturesque, glass-walled restaurant over-lit by Bruus Christensen, and proceed to order bottle after bottle of Sonoma County’s finest as they hash out the old days and the flame of their passion threatens to reignite. Surely all this booze can’t be good for Henry’s head, though, can it?
As a cat-and-mouse game between two operatives who were once madly, deeply in love, All The Old Knives has just the right touch of believability mixed with watchability to make it a small-screen escapist success. As a spy story, though, its gleaming sexiness does tend to undermine its credibility — this is more of Allied, or Mr & Mrs Jones, crusted over with the sad tears of a great love that was lost, than a Tinker Tailor.
Denmark’s Metz, who went for TV after Borg Vs. McEnroe’s award-winning success (directing ZeroZeroZero) brings it all home efficiently, although some of his team — fellow Dane Bruus Christensen, production designer Marcus Rowland - haven’t got enough to do, and consequently do too much. There’s a lingering suspicion given the determined lack of any exterior work whatsoever, that this was a lockdown project: certainly, the central restaurant ‘Vin de Vie’ was constructed on a UK soundstage with an LED backdrop. In a way, though, the artifice matches the games of deceit the characters are playing on each other.
‘All The Old Knives’, by the way, is a line from Plato’s Phaedrus: “All the old knives that have rusted into my back I drive into yours.” Yet, to the film’s credit, it is never quite clear that revenge is the strongest emotion at play here. The audience is kept guessing throughout, and whether the end justifies the means is a question everyone ends up having to answer for themselves.
Production companies: Chockstone Pictures, Nick Wechsler Productions, Jackson Pictures, Barry Linden Motion Pictures
Worldwide distribution: Amazon Studios
Producers: Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Nick Wechsler, Matt Jackson
Screenplay: Olen Steinhauer, from his novel of the same name
Cinematography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Editing: Mark Eckersley, Per Sandhott
Production design: Marcus Rowland
Music: Rebecca Karijord, Jon Ekstrand
Main cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Jonathan Pryce, Laurence Fishburne