Tuesday 26 July 2022

Movie Review: All The Old Knives (2022)

A spy drama, All The Old Knives is a slow burning series of revelations. The multiple flashback structure is suitably complex but shaky plot points remain evident.

In 2012, Flight 127 is hijacked at Vienna airport by Islamist terrorists. The CIA's Vienna station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) monitors the crisis with his team of agents, including veteran Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), field agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), and agent Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who is also Henry's lover. The hijacking ends badly, and Celia immediately breaks up with Henry and leaves the agency.

In 2020, Vick tasks Henry with reopening the Flight 127 file, to investigate allegations by recently captured terrorist leader Ilyas Shishani (Orli Shuka) that a mole in the CIA's Vienna office assisted the hijackers. Suspicions swirl around Celia, who is now married with two children and living in California. Henry first visits the retired Bill in London, then meets Celia at a seaside restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Over a long meal they probe each other about events surrounding Flight 127, their relationship, and secrets they have both protected for years.

A grim battle of wits unfolding over multiple timelines, All The Old Knives seeks thrills through mental duels. Avoiding action cliches, the narrative settles down to a series of conversations circling crucial secrets. Olen Steinhauer wrote the script based on his own novel, and Janus Metz Pedersen directs with dour intensity. The burden of spying, mixed with a torrid romance and past betrayals, creates a dense foundation for the drama.

While the narrative starts with Henry's perspective, Celia eventually emerges as an equal, and their dinner-and-wine interaction benefits from lingering uncertainty surrounding exactly what happened during the hijacking. The timeline jumps allow gaps to be introduced, paused, and later filled-in, adding a crackling current of tension. But unfortunately, as the puzzle pieces consisting of hidden motives, personal agendas, and clandestine meetings start to form a picture, the overall plot loses a layer of logic.

Although a few other agents are sketched in, the emphasis remains on Henry, Celia, Bill, and to a lesser extent Vick. The list of possible collaborators is therefore short, reducing the impact of the inevitable twists. Within the limits of the material, the two leads avoid the theatricality encouraged by the confined sets. Chris Pine sips his role through Pierce Brosnan's wine glass, while Thandiwe Newton allows Celia's distance from active service to round her edges into more human than spy.

All The Old Knives refreshingly dares to ignore car chases, combat scenes, and shoot-outs. The focus on psychological control, emotional scars, painful compromises, and principles of trust is sometimes over-extended, but always cerebral.

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