Producers: Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Nick Wechsler and Matt Jackson Director: Janus Metz Screenplay: Olen Steinhauer Cast: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Corey Johnson, Jonjo O’Neill, Ahd Kamel, David Dawson, Nasser Memarzia and Orli Shuka Distributor: Amazon Prime
It’s all about finding the mole, but there’s no George Smiley, and certainly no smiles, in Janus Metz’s espionage movie, adapted by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel. Though Steinhauer is a prolific writer of spy thrillers, there are also very few thrills in this slow, moody, morose tale about a world-weary CIA man assigned to look into whether someone in the agency collaborated in a terrorist event eight years previously—with an ex-lover for whom he still carries a torch a prime suspect.
The investigating agent is Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), handed the job by Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne, who brings somber gravity to what’s little more than a cameo). The event being scrutinized anew is the hijacking of an airliner by Islamic terrorists; the hijackers had the plane on the runway in Vienna and were demanding the release of prisoners held in Austria and Germany.
Working at the CIA Vienna station at the time were Pelham; Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), with whom he was enjoying a torrid romance; and her mentor Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce). They were involved in trying to end the standoff peacefully, using whatever contacts they had. But the situation went south. In the aftermath Celia abruptly left the agency, and Henry as well; Compton soon followed her into retirement.
Now the matter is reopened because one of the perpetrators has alleged that they had help from within the CIA station. Wallinger wants the matter resolved before it can do the agency serious damage. So Henry goes to London to interview Compton, and to Carmel, California, where over dinner at a fine restaurant he will reconnect with Celia, now happily married with children.
The film alternates between these contemporary conversations, fraught as they are with veiled accusations and allusions to hidden secrets, and flashbacks to the events of eight years prior, which show the escalation of tension aboard the plane as well as the actions of Henry, Celia ad Bill as the situation grows increasingly desperate. Taken together the two timelines gradually reveal what actually happened and the interpersonal damage that resulted among the CIA staff, before showing how all is resolved in the here and now.
It’s an intricate piece, in terms of the clues, misdirection and red herrings that Steinhauer doles out in the flashbacks and the undercurrents he suggests in the present-day conversations; but when the puzzle pieces come together, the picture that emerges isn’t terribly surprising, certainly not by comparison to what John le Carré accomplished in his famous mole-hunting tale, ”Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” (In that connection, could the name Compton be a tip of the hat to the Circus, which some have persuasively located near that London street?)
In any event, this chamber-piece-sized spy whodunit’s modest pleasures are conveyed reasonably well by the excellent trio of leads, who each get a chance to play now-and-then juxtapositions with Pine and Pryce appearing to have suffered more, in terms of grooming, with the passage of years than Newton, who apart from a more dour attitude remains as lovely eight years on as she did before.
The remainder of the cast have relatively little to do, although as usual those portraying Islamist radicals—Ahd Kamel, Nasser Memarzia, Orli Shuka—are dealing in stereotypes. The crafts team do a good, atmospheric job, with production designer Marcus Roland and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen maintaining an appropriately dank look, even in the sequences in that sleekly modernist restaurant. The editing by Mark Eckersley and Per Sandholt is a mite sluggish, perhaps in an effort to let the clues sink in, and the mournfully throbbing score by Rebekka Karijord and Jon Ekstrand grows irritating, but overall the mood of regret in both love and war (that on terror, of course) is diligently managed.
Measured against the highest standards of the genre, though, “All the Old Knives” would have benefited from some additional sharpening.