Written by: Heidi Shepler | April 7th, 2022
All the Old Knives (Janus Metz, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Like any good spy movie, All the Old Knives is wily and secretive; lies and deception (sometimes self-deception) are piled on top of each other like layers of sediment. The film begins as many spy thrillers do: there’s been an international incident, which the characters watch unfold on live television. Hostages have been taken, threats have been made, and the stakes are incredibly high.
But even within the first few moments, there are a few subversions of genre. Rather than CIA headquarters, the main characters are stationed in Vienna, Austria. The two main characters, CIA operatives Henry Pelham (Chris Pine, The Contractor) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, HBO’s Westworld series) are in a relationship, one which they make no effort to hide. And rather than a race against time to save the world, or a Le Carré-like intellectual chess match, director Janus Metz (Borg Vs. McEnroe) traces the aftermath of the operatives’ failure.
Eight years after “Flight 127,” as everyone involved euphemistically refers to a previous tragedy, we find Henry uncomfortably accepting an assignment. Evidence has come to light that there was a mole during the Flight 127 incident, and Henry must find out whether it was Celia. For her part, Celia has left the CIA, started over in California, and is now married with two children. Henry’s boss, Vick (Laurence Fishburne, The Ice Road) asks Henry whether he still carries a torch for Celia. Henry sardonically asks how long a torch can burn with no oxygen; the pair haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade.
The rest of the film cuts between the present, in which Henry interviews Celia about the day of the Flight 127 disaster, and flashbacks of the day itself. The contrast in their relationship is stark, and the interview seems all the more painful because there are lingering feelings on both sides. Celia remembers tracing Henry’s face with her fingertips while he slept, and when Henry asks her to move in with him they kiss again and again, staring into each other’s eyes and cradling each other’s faces. Even when making love they are tangled tightly together, seeking comfort and affection as well as pleasure. But the film invites us to question whether these memories are an accurate reflection of their relationship. They were spies, after all. Was Celia tricking Henry, or vice versa?
By the time all these questions are answered, we come to realize that All the Old Knives isn’t actually about who the mole was, or who was smarter than whom. Rather, it’s about vulnerability. All of the characters try to pretend that they’re invulnerable, but none of them are, which again is why this film is such a departure from the spy-vs.-spy genre. Even the most antagonistic character in the film has moments of vulnerability when recounting how he lost his daughter. Circumstances are the true villain of the film, rather than politics. Choices far beyond the reach of either Henry or Celia wound a terrible net around Flight 127, and even eight years on there’s still no escape.