I have not read the book that All the Old Knives is based on. This isn’t that uncommon for me. There are a lot of movies based on books and a lot of books I haven’t read. The chances are that those two facts overlap more often than not. Sometimes I try to read a book before a film comes out if I get the chance but that’s not usually the case. For many film critics, this is the case and with that in mind, the film is usually reviewed on its functionality as a movie, not on its compliance with the book. Hell, sometimes not having read the book makes a movie better.
Despite that the fact that my only knowledge of All the Old Knives the book is what I gleaned from Amazon and some reviews I’ve now read I can promise you one thing: the book is better. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you that fact but having sat through Amazon’s spy thriller I can confidently say that you should just go read the book and leave this adaptation behind. This is not a book that should have been made into a movie.
All the Old Knives
Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
Release Date: April 8, 2022 (Theatrical and Amazon Prime)
All the Old Knives really wants to be one of those tense, quick spy thrillers that pull you into a twisting plot where you aren’t sure which way is up or who to trust. Eight years after a tragic terrorist event in which an entire plane of people are killed thanks to a mole in the CIA office in Vienna, the case is brought out of mothballs with Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), one of the spies involved in the case, tasked with ferreting out who the mole is. He heads to Carmel-by-the-Sea to reconnect with fellow spy and ex-lover Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton) and begins an interrogation in an idyllic restaurant as the two go through what happened.
This is a fantastic premise for a book. A semi-romantic dinner between two spies as they play off each other with life-or-death high stakes. I can see myself not being able to put it down. However, it falls apart as a film or, at least, as this film. Pedersen doesn’t truly commit to the bit, unfortunately. He opens the film not at the restaurant but with exposition and then, throughout their dinner, cuts away to aspects that are outside the story. Some of this is necessary for the plot but it completely destroys the film’s concept and the majority of its tension. The emotional and tense dinner loses its drive as we hop around too much. Having not read the book, maybe it functions the same way but even if it does the movie doesn’t make this work.
The film also treats itself as far more clever than it actually is. Being a spy film, there are, of course, twists and turns among the characters. The mystery of who the mole is should be somewhat puzzling but the movie doesn’t do enough to establish the myriad of characters in it as anything more than red herrings. Plus, knowing the kind of film it is the obvious choice for the villain is clearly not going to be it. When the final twists start unraveling there’s little the film has done to make you feel like it has earned its ending, and its attempt at an “Aha!” moment is clumsy at best.
Even worse, the film seems to feel like it needs to put a nice bow on things despite the entire premise being about the horrors of the world. There’s a perfect moment of drama where the film could end leaving the right kind of questions but it doesn’t. Maybe that’s because the book doesn’t either but this ending doesn’t work.
Pedersen’s direction is hit or miss. The film starts out with a kind of old-Hollywood glow to it as the sun sets on the California coast and the pair eat dinner together. There’s a certain tension at the beginning of the movie as it feels like you need to be paying attention to every detail. But Pedersen rapidly overplays his hand so that the hints become full-blown answers and the twists and turns become telegraphed instead of cleverly hidden. Looking back, the taut feeling of the opening is nothing more than smoke and mirrors to mask a poorly executed storyline.
What does work in the film is Pine and Newton playing off each other across a table. Pine, aged up slightly, slowly unravels as the film plays out and Newton is a powerhouse across from him. When the movie lets the two of them simply go it is at its best; a kind of spy thriller My Dinner With Andre. There’s no way Amazon, or any studio, would have let anyone make the film simply with two actors talking in a restaurant but that’s the movie I want to see — the entire plot playing out through their performances, not flashbacks and cuts.
That is what I imagine the book to be because books can pull that off so much better. A tale of two people — spies — working each other over the course of a fantastic meal. There’s magic in that book but not in this movie. What get from All the Old Knives is far too straightforward to be anything special. This knife needs some sharpening.