CIA agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is a man bearing a heavy burden: he’s been tasked by his boss, Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) with figuring which of his former colleagues was responsible for leaking information that aided terrorists in a plane hijacking that killed over 100 people. The hijacking took place in Vienna eight years ago, but recently discovered information indicates that a CIA mole was involved, and Vick has narrowed it down to two suspects: Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), now retired and living in London, and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who left the CIA and now lives in Carmel-by-the-Sea with her husband and kids. One more wrinkle: Henry and Celia used to be lovers, but she abruptly disappeared after the hijacking and Henry hasn’t seen her since.
The second suspect is of the most interest to Janus Metz’s All the Old Knives, whose screenplay was adapted by Olen Steinhauer from his novel of the same name. Most of the film takes place in an upscale restaurant in Carmel (it’s so fancy it doesn’t serve spirits, only wine), where Henry and Celia spend a very lengthy lunch discussing the hijacking and their former colleagues. He’s still carrying a torch for her, and she seems to retain some interest in him, despite having moved on with her life. The passage of time is marked by changes in the light streaming in through the windows, while the film frequently cuts away from their conversation for flashbacks, sometimes narrated and sometimes simply presented as live action, which fill in the backstory while also demonstrating that perhaps neither of these two people are the most reliable of narrators.
That All the Old Knives provides much of its exposition (and there is a lot of info dump in the dialogue between Henry and Celia) in scenes lit and framed like a romantic drama is just one of the tricks it has up its sleeve. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera is seldom still– it swirls and dollies more than it remains fixed, giving the film a sense of fluidity and also creating some motion in a film largely composed of people talking to each other. She also uses a variety of palettes and camera techniques to differentiate different aspects of the story—for instance, the hijacking scenes are shot handheld, while Henry’s interview with Bill is lit so half of each person’s face is in deep shadow—and these differences are meaningful (in contrast to, say, Kenneth Branagh’s many useless camera flourishes in Murder on the Orient Express).
All the Old Knives can feel like a play opened up for film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when it’s as well done as in this case. The point is not naturalism, but setting up a puzzle, and the payoff is well worth your time. Plus, this film offers so many pleasures besides intellectual delight—attractive people who are also excellent actors, good chemistry among the leads (and yes, there are some sex scenes), a variety of interesting locations, and expert execution of every technical detail—that you probably won’t even notice when the characters are trading buckets of exposition. Speaking of technical expertise, a few more of the crew deserve shout-outs, including editors Mark Eckersley and Per Sandholt (this is truly a film made in the editing suite), costume designer Stephanie Collie, art director Grant Bailey, and production designer Marcus Rowland. | Sarah Boslaugh
All the Old Knives is screening in theatres and is available on Amazon Prime beginning April 8.