Review: Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton bring restrained passion to ‘All the Old Knives’
Secrets, score settling, grudge holding, deception and recriminations are, of course, the stuff of international espionage. In some circumstances they can also be the ingredients of romantic entanglements, especially in the aftermath of complicated liaisons. All of which is to say international espionage and romantic entanglements both revolve around the essential unknowability of other people.
Such is the aim of “All the Old Knives,” a cerebral thriller with an elegant sensibility directed by Janus Metz from a screenplay by Olen Steinhauer adapting his own novel. Chris Pine stars as Henry Pelham, a CIA case officer sent to interview his former colleague and clandestine ex-lover Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), who has left international spycraft behind to start a family in the upscale environs of “Big Little Lies” country in Northern California. (How apropos.) Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne are both underutilized in roles as their superior officers.
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Over a leisurely dinner that is part heartfelt reunion and part tricky interrogation, Henry attempts to pry from Celia whether she had anything to do with a leak in their old office that caused the deaths of everyone aboard a hijacked airliner. Soon both of their secrets start spilling out.
Director Metz previously made the tennis-world psychodrama “Borg vs. McEnroe,” a fitting connection as “All the Old Knives” is rooted in the back-and-forth volleys of its two main characters. Pine and Newton have a distinctive chemistry that remains restrained and reserved, the connection of two people trained to never reveal too much, yet with something recklessly undeniable drawing them together. The film’s big love scene is more dramatic than erotic, though it does include a heat and passion that is missing from much of the rest of the film.
That the main signifier of the film’s flashbacks is that Pine’s hair is longer and floppier and he has a penchant for layered scarves, which later give way to tailored suits, is somehow both hilarious and adorable. The portions of the film that explore Henry and Celia’s time together in the past feel less convincing than when they are playing two old flames who know they are better off not together, yet are both still haunted by a certain sense of what-if. Unlike most former couples, their romantic backstory and inevitable breakup is driven by a deadly incident of international terrorism.
“All The Old Knives” comes out right after “The Contractor,” which also stars Pine and had ambitions to merge a domestic drama with an action thriller, shades of Robert Ludlum akin to “Old Knives’” nods to John Le Carré. Both films don’t fully pull off what they are aiming for, but showcase Pine’s charisma, vulnerability and versatility as an actor with much more to offer than just his leading man looks. Newton has become such a reliably nuanced performer that it is easy to overlook the subtlety of her work here.
At one point in “All the Old Knives” Newton says, “It’s the things that we don’t know that get to me,” a line that best links the film’s espionage plot and romantic drama. The film is a compelling concept that doesn’t thread the needle of its competing impulses quite as gracefully as it might have, but driven by the imminently watchable Newton and Pine, it makes for the kind of adult-oriented storytelling one wishes there was more of these days.
'All The Old Knives'
Rated: R, for sexuality/nudity, violence and language
Running time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
Playing: In limited release; also available on Amazon Prime Video
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