All the Old Knives wants you to sweat and swoon in equal measure. Playing in the same tried and true sandbox as some of the great espionage thrillers before it, director Janus Metz Pedersen’s adaptation of Olen Steinhaur’s 2015 novel traffics in all necessary trappings of its genre. Between the clandestine correspondence and popped peacoat collars against wet European streets, it’s certainly not shy about cinematic crushes. This infatuation is wholly appropriate, because––chilly demeanor notwithstanding––All the Old Knives is a burning romantic at heart.
Reuniting several years after an airline hijacking gone disastrously wrong, resulting in the deaths of all onboard, ex-lovers and ex-colleagues Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) dine in a near-empty Carmel-by-the-Sea wine bar. Having since been promoted to a desk job at the CIA and Celia being out of the game, Henry is tasked with leveraging their past romantic history to uncover the truth behind what occurred in the CIA’s Vienna Station years prior. As their rendezvous escalates, so does the spark between old flames, and the two trade off cat-and-mouse reveals behind that fateful day over a four-course meal.
The setup enables an extremely spare film, but the sheer gravity of Pine and Newton is the singularity pulling All the Old Knives‘ every element towards it. Pine, ever the leading man out of time, continues making a case as one of our most formidable movie stars. Newton, who should be a bigger figure in her own right, compliments him perfectly here. Their daliences throughout the film propel everything, elevating this just above a mere facsimile of its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears. The date-night reunion at Knives’ core pitches between longing glances and terse interrogations with such an elegance that the odds of this encounter ending in a bedroom or a body bag are 50/50. Luxuriating in romantic liaisons as much as pot boiling tradecraft is all the fun here.
On those terms Old Knives has an occasional resplendent quality that’s hard to ignore. A magic-hour glow swaddles a majority of the restaurant centerpiece, toeing the line between cinematic artifice and an alluring romantic ideal. Not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind with a cloak-and-dagger yarn, it’s an aesthetic that takes its cues from the beautiful faces across the table and fine wine in-between them. Who wouldn’t want a dreamy night out with either of these stunners? While some visual scope seems slightly hindered by its pandemic production, DP Charlotte Bruus Christiensen’s lens is able to lean into the challenge. Though there’s a lack of the arresting, cold, post-war tableaus seen in something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there’s an intense intimacy in its place. It’s a smoldering closeness fostered not only by the beautiful use of the Jonathan Demme-style close-up, but also a chemistry you can taste––including a love scene so passionately constructed, it truly feels pulled from a bygone, frankly thirstier, era.
Against all this, the actual unraveling of the conspiracies at hand feels somewhat secondary; a potential demerit for anyone hankering for full-on George Smiley double-crosses or Hitchcockian nail-biting. What steely back channeling, red herrings and rug pulls there are engage enough on a basic genre level, but Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce have to make appearances as CIA suits just long enough to try convincing you this is the thriller you showed up for, not a surprisingly romance-first spy tale.
Like a good snoop, All the Old Knives works its assets to maximum effect. It knows what it’s doing with Chris Pine in a turtleneck or Thandiwe Newton smirking through a glass of rosé. What’s left is a sturdy version of something maybe too familiar but welcome all the same. With his recent string of films, Pine in particular feels intent on keeping this brand of mid-budget entertainment alive. Should that mission prove successful, maybe we’ll collectively accept him for the marquee icon he is. Maybe Pine can finally come in from the cold.
All the Old Knives arrives in theaters and on VOD on April 8.