VOD film review: All the Old Knives
James R | On 10, Apr 2022
Director: Janus Metz
Cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce
What makes a spy story a spy story? It’s not the explosive action, claustrophobic surveillance or even the thrill of the pursuit. What makes a spy story is the key element of all espionage: deception. That truth was at the centre of John le Carré’s timeless work, with the author understanding its cost and consequences on both a personal and national level. It’s also at the heart of All the Old Knives, and that gives what might have been an otherwise generic thriller a compelling depth.
Based on the 2015 novel of the same title by Olen Steinhauer, the film stars Chris Pine as Henry, a seasoned spy who has to revisit his past. Years ago, he was involved in an operation to rescue hostages on a plane in Vienna. Led by Vick (Laurence Fishburne), the team also included Celia (Newton) and Bill (Jonathan Pryce), and all three of them are still haunted today by how badly the mission went. With Vick unearthing new evidence that a mole was responsible, Henry is sent back into the field to reconnect with his old colleagues, identify the double agent and tie up any loose ends.
If that doesn’t sound very exciting, you’re not entirely wrong, with the script deliberately avoiding spectacle in favour of low-key suspense. Even Henry’s instructions are coy: “I need to know the man I send can do what’s necessary,” says Vick. “You gonna say it?” asks Henry. “No, Henry, I’m not,” comes the sharp reply.
That approach also gives the film a poignant and reflective tone that fits its slow-burn style; this is a study in regret, secrets and long-overdue confrontations. The twisting script doesn’t always manage to pull off its attempts at surprising us, and things feel a tad too convoluted for what is essentially a straightforward, conventional tale.
But the film’s secret weapon is that the script is delivered by a cast who sink their teeth into every interaction. Jonathan Pryce and Lawrence Fishburne are both excellent as the dour, determined veterans, bringing enough ambiguity to keep each encounter interesting. This is Chris Pine and Thandiwe Netwon’s show, however, and they generate steamy chemistry as we watch them circle each other, each one suspicious and guarded, not just on a professional level but because they both carry the personal scars of their former relationship.
That balance of spycraft and personal stakes makes for a sizzling watch, from Pine’s probing stare to Newton’s layered presence. Director Janus Metz (Borg vs McEnroe) captures their back and forth with patience and intimacy – and as the old flames begin to spark into life once more, it’s a smouldering spectacle to admire.