All The Old Knives

I spy, with Amazon’s eye, something beginning with…

What’s The Movie? All The Old Knives

What’s It All About, JG? Two former CIA operatives, Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and the now-retired Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) meet up in a luxurious restaurant to discuss a case from 2012. A plane was hijacked in Vienna and despite the CIA’s best efforts all the passengers and terrorists were killed. New information has come to light years later that there may have been a mole, and Henry has been tasked with getting to the bottom of what happened. What follows is two stories told in parallel. Firstly there’s a series of flashbacks to the 2012 incident itself, including the psychosexual relationship between Henry and Celia, which outlines the events and characters involved. Secondly, and interwoven with the flashbacks, there’s the contemporary scenes set in the restaurant where the two former lovers play cat-and-mouse with each other, before the final reveal of what really happened and the consequences of it.

Why Did You Give It A Go? Well, it’s a pretty stacked cast for one. Aside from Pine and Newton, we have old pros Laurence Fishburne as station chief Vick Wallinger, and Jonathan Pryce as Bill Compton, the boss Celia idolised. While you’d be hard-pressed to say either were especially stretched by their roles Fishburne emanates the sort of stern authority the role needs. And Pryce, pleasingly, underplays his role as a man whose position remains unclear until fairly late in the narrative. Beyond that, this is clearly a throwback sort of movie of the kind that normally gets made as a Cold War espionage thriller, so it’s just quite interesting to see that style applied to a more contemporary setting.

Is It Any Good? Well, straight out of the gate we have to talk about Pine and Newton, both of whom are never less than excellent. The scenes of them in the present, brimming with tension as they both represent for each other the love that got away, are magnificent. Pine, cast as someone a million miles away from the brashly masculine roles he’s normally associated with, plays a controlled, slow burn throughout the film. And you know what? It turns out he’s a surprisingly great character actor, imbuing Henry with real depth and feeling (in truth, possibly a bit more than is on the page). He’s slightly cast against type too, so when we get to the movie’s conclusion it really packs a wallop. Pine is also sporting two separate looks – in the flashbacks he appears to be the exact midpoint between Chris Hemmsworth and William Shatner, and in the present appears to be suffering from a condition known as late-period Piers Brosnan. Yet the distinctive salt-and-pepper stubble “now” look really sells the more manipulative side of the character, and seeing him framed in close-up doing nothing more than feeling regret or longing really shows off how good an actor he can be.

And as for Thandiwe Newton, well she’s just incredible. Though, again, there’s a slight sense of the actor being a bit better than the material in places. The “family” background, and especially the closing shot with her kids, feels a tad obvious in terms of the writing but Newton’s simply good enough to make it all work. The gradual reveal of Celia’s part in the scheme that’s going down, as we move to the reveal, is exquisitely executed by her. She and Pine have extraordinary on-screen chemistry as well, and there’s a very real pleasure in just watching two superb actors sharing scene after scene together. Both are excellent in the flashbacks too, but it’s the contemporary scenes that demonstrate just how well they work together, and just how terrific the casting really is here.

For the movie itself, this is a meditative, thoughtful and considered film, far more le Carré than Fleming (Henry asking for a vodka-martini at the restaurant and getting knocked back nicely underscores this, a little corny though it unquestionably is). Things are pacy – you could say rushed – in the pre-credits sequences to quickly sketch in the two timeframes and what happened on the fateful night in Vienna. But once we get past the titles things slow down and we get a movie that’s far more concerned with the reality of espionage work than the usual fast cars, gunfights and fisticuffs more commonly associated with the genre. That slowness of pace makes the movie feel slightly old-fashioned, but in this case that is very much to the film’s benefit.

Indeed, the commitment to the actual craft of spywork is one of the the things that makes the film work as a whole. While the twists and turns are clearly exaggerated for the sake of the who’s-the-mole plot, there’s a credibility here as agents go through the motions of building trust and making contacts, of understanding the who and the why of the situation, and of how badly things can go wrong even with all that hard work. The story is, in the end, clearly a film plot but it works because the groundwork feels credible and believable. It makes all the difference in the world.

How Many Of These Have You Seen? Spy movies? Far too many. Still keep coming back though!

Would You Recommend It? Very much so, although with a couple of caveats. Most notably, as you may have gathered by now, this is an unhurried movie – it’s not got an over-burdensome running time at 1 hour and 40 minutes and indeed having it that short is really rather refreshing. But the pace is definitely languorous as we step through all the various permutations of the story before getting to the reveal. Occasionally – just occasionally – things could have moved a little more quickly. Equally, the reveal of the “twist” ending – if that’s the right term, and I’m really not altogether sure it is – followed by another twist, followed by what may or may not have been another twist, might lay it on a bit thick. It’s not a big flaw, and so much good work has been done up to that point that it works, but you may need to be at least a little indulgent to let it pass.

Equally this is a lean script – again contributing to that short run-time – but sometimes just a touch more detail might have been helpful. In particular, Johnathan Pryce, who’s tasked with little more than sitting in a pub looking indignant, could have done with a smidge more to do and Bill Compton is (and you may detect a theme here) a bit of a thin character given life mostly by being played by a very, very good actor. That’s true of Fishburne too, though his role of “glowering” requires less meat on the bone, and the final shot of him is really rather masterful.

But overall, yes, this is a film thoroughly worthy of a recommendation. The melding of an old-style espionage story with a more contemporary setting works remarkably well, Pine and Newton make the movie worth watching on their own, and the plot hangs together. If you’re looking for an action movie, well, this isn’t the one for you, but if you’re looking for a contemplative, thoughtful and well-constructed story that really makes an effort to built itself from a believable world then you could do a lot worse. The two lead performances provide the largest amount of pleasure, which is basically watching gifted actors simply turn up and be great. But the whole film has a real air of sophistication and intelligence about it that goes beyond those two roles. It’s a handsome movie too, extremely well shot and carefully directed, and even the score comes across as sumptuous. Not quite for everyone, and not quite perfect, but very, very good nonetheless.

Scores On The Doors? 7.5/10

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