All the Old Knives stars Chris Pine as CIA operative Henry Pelham, who in 2012 was part of a team that failed to rescue an aeroplane full of hostages from their terrorist captors. Now in the present day, new information has come to light indicating that one of Pelham’s old colleagues leaked vital details to the terrorists, which ultimately led to the deaths of everyone on the plane. It is therefore Pelham’s new mission to interview the two prime suspects, Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), and Pelham’s old lover, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton).
Written by Olen Steinhauer, based on his own novel, and directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, All the Old Knives is a fascinating puzzle of a movie. Pelham’s interview with his ex-lover, Celia, at a swanky wine bar overlooking gorgeous Californian landscape, provides the hub of the movie, and from there the narrative jumps back and forth across various time periods and locations. We are taken two weeks back to when Pelham interviewed his other suspect, Bill Compton, we are returned to 2012 and the hostage situation as it unfolded, and we are shown Pelham and Harrison’s relationship as it broke down around the time of the terrorist tragedy. As each time period is revisited, layers of detail are added so that seemingly inconsequential moments become vital clues leading up to the final revelation. It is to writer Steinhauer and director Pedersen’s enormous credit that the film is never jumbled or confusing. In fact, it’s enormously compelling.
Perhaps the film can best be described as a cross between John Le Carre and Agatha Christie. It is at once a detailed and cerebral spy thriller, while at the same time a satisfying whodunit with plenty of twists and turns and an almost obligatory sting in its tail.
It’s worth saying that All the Old Knives is very much a suspense thriller as opposed to an action thriller. No guns are fired, no rooftops are jumped across. And yet it’s filled with tension and atmosphere. The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen has a gloomy magnificence about it. As the interview between Pelham and Harrison progresses, so the day outside turns into late evening, and the pleasantly lit wine bar becomes dark and foreboding, shadows settling around them like impending doom as the mystery gets closer to being solved. The use of expressionism is both subtle and potent. The music co-scored by Jon Ekstrand and Rebekka Karijord is also worthy of praise, as it adds to the unsettling atmosphere with its dramatic use of strings.
The performances are strong throughout, although only Newton and Pine are given significant time on screen. Pine is solid (no pun intended), which is all the performance requires. He’s floppy haired and handsome in the flashbacks while in the present-day sequences he’s dogged and professional. Newton on the other hand is excellent in a challenging role. During her interview with Pelham she manages to convey regret for the life they could have had, a rekindled romantic interest, dredged up trauma caused by the terrorist killings, and a desire to keep herself in check as she knows the danger Pelham poses to her as he probes her version of past events. Newton is a formidable actor indeed.
All the Old Knives is a gripping, unsettling puzzle of a movie that will likely keep you in rapt attention as the pieces fall into place. Just don’t expect any motorcycle chases or nuclear bombs that almost go off.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10
All the Old Knives is streaming now on Amazon Prime.