Arguably the best thing about Amazon Prime’s somnambulant thriller, “All the Old Knives,” is Swedish singer Amanda Bergman’s too cool rendition of The Cure’s hit, “Lovesong” over the closing credits. The music has a dubious, haunting quality to it, and the lyrics, “Whatever words I say/I will always love you,” suggests what this film tries — and fails — to do, which is communicate how love and betrayal sometimes operate in tandem.
The story involves the investigation of a CIA mole eight years after a hijacking incident claimed the lives of more than 100 innocent people. Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) is the boss in Vienna, and he asks Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) to close the book on an embarrassing situation by tracking down Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) to see if either (or both or neither) of them provided inside information to the hijackers. Moreover, Henry must “do what is necessary” to diffuse the mole. Wallinger won’t articulate the word “kill,” but Henry is soon hiring Treble (Michael Shaeffer) to eliminate Celia if she is the mole.
Adding to the complexity of the assignment, Henry and Celia, were in a romantic relationship back in Vienna, where they both worked during the hijacking. Will their reunion rekindle their old spark? Cut to two weeks earlier, when Henry meets with Bill in London. Following their encounter, Bill places a warning call to Celia, telling her Henry is coming.
“All the Old Knives” is directed, poorly, by Janus Metz, who is working from a screenplay by Olen Steinhauer, who adapted his own novel for the film. The story toggles back and forth between Vienna eight years earlier, and a contemporary sequence where Henry interviews Celia in an empty, fancy wine country restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea. (Celia dropped out of the spy game after the hijacking, got married, and moved to California). Metz may envision Steinhauer’s story to be a twisty thriller with double-crosses, but the film is edited in ways that defuse the tension and possibly confuse the viewer. (Pine’s hair and graying beard signify the time period, but one might think that the actor, who serves as executive producer, insisted on the numerous close-ups that bask in his matinee idol good looks.)
The scenes between Henry and Celia are of interest because there is not much else to chew on in this flimsy thriller. Ordering Burrata with cilantro oil, blood orange, and maple-glazed free-range bacon, Henry invites Celia to “live a little” and try the bacon. He feeds her from his fork, and it is more sensual than their sex scenes that pop up later in the film. But as they talk (and talk) about what transpired all those years ago, the story comes down to who made a phone call to the enemy as the hijacking was unfolding.
All the Old Knives (Stefania Rosini/Amazon Studios)
The suspects are few. One of their colleagues died by suicide. One is above their pay grade. One, who might be viable, is discredited for a forgettable reason. The “whydunnit”— what would prompt someone to betray their country? — is more intriguing than the “whodunnit,” but not by much because “All the Old Knives” does not provide enough backstory. There is talk of Henry’s previous work in Moscow where he first made contact with Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka) who is integral to the hijacking case. And Celia recounts her previous, unhappy posting in Dublin, her only prior job before Vienna. Bill’s complication is his never-seen wife, who provides an excuse during the hijacking incident for him to leave, and for someone to use his phone to call the enemy contact.
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However, Metz never generates much tension as this investigation develops. Henry and Celia talk about a relationship based on trust, but the betrayal — of their relationship or their country — never finds any purchase. Does Henry believe Celia is guilty — or does he want to? Were they really in love back in Vienna? He tells her, in one of the film’s vaguest, most risible lines, “You’ve convinced me . . . that you are very convincing.” Newton spends the entire scene with a pained look on her face.
Viewers will be equally aggrieved. “All the Old Knives” never crackles, even when something sinister occurs as a way of neutralizing the mole. And even if the reasoning for the espionage is justified by or for the character(s), it is not very satisfying for the audience. The love between Henry and Celia is limited to a few passionate kisses and a few scenes of them in bed. Both characters are too underdeveloped to merit any investment.
Pine tries, vainly, to make Henry cool and confident, but he also has a cockiness about him that belies his agenda. His self-righteous nature comes off as smug and self-serving. In contrast, Newton gives a more nuanced performance, using her eyes to convey Celia’s percolating emotions which range from anxious to implacable. In support, both Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Price are woefully underused in their few scenes.
“All the Old Knives” should keep viewers guessing, but instead, this dull film is just humdrum.
“All the Old Knives” is now streaming on Prime Video. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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