On the surface, All The Old Knives bears plenty in common with other entries in the overcrowded spy thriller genre: intense espionage, terrorist threats, globetrotting locations, pacy action, twisty double-crossing, Chris Pine (with this and The Contractor, it’s one of two thrillers starring Pine coming out just weeks apart).
The breakneck pre-credits sequence certainly suggests as much, establishing the facts of the narrative in swift expositionary scenes: years ago, we are told, a flight was hijacked, and the CIA team tasked with apprehending the terrorists ends with failure. In the present day, with most of the team’s members gone their separate ways, one agent must figure out what really happened.
Both timelines, then and now, are hurriedly set up before we even get the title. Then the film takes a breath, and guides us into its elliptical storytelling carefully and with consideration. The direction from Janus Metz Pedersen is crisp and clear-headed; the script, by Olen Steinhauer (adapting his own novel of the same name), favours dialogue-driven tension over gun-fights or action. Much of the drama simply unfolds in meeting rooms, restaurants or rainy pubs. The filmmakers are clearly interested in depicting the nuts and bolts of espionage as much as anything: meeting sources, establishing trust, strategising, negotiating. The result is powerful and suspenseful, even though we more-or-less know the outcome of the hijacking, if not the mole.
What really sets it apart is the romantic and almost psychosexual drama underpinning it all.
What really sets it apart from the usual Bourne clones, however, is the romantic and almost psychosexual drama underpinning it all. The narrative device that frames the film is a reunion dinner between two former colleagues and lovers, Henry (Pine) and Celia (Thandiwe Newton), as they recall the disastrous events of the hijacking over fine wine and a three-course meal. There’s a rigorous professionalism (and, it has to be said, an almost implausibly accurate level of detail) to their memories, muddied by their former romance. Some uncomfortable truths, inevitably, emerge. My Dinner With André, this most definitely is not.
They’re both each other’s one-that-got-away, and the film skilfully weaves their relationship into the wider spy plot. But above all that, there’s still something to be said — in the old-school Hollywood sense — about just watching two incredibly beautiful, charming people simply enjoying a meal while making eyes at each other. Some scenes, Pedersen simply allows their faces to fill the screen in extreme close-ups, both actors selling the years of regret, loss and love. Pine and Newton are so good at this, and for all its posturing towards being a serious drama — and it is largely successful in that — it is equally satisfying to watch movie stars just be movie stars.