In a previous installment of the Passport to Espionage column (included below), I delved into the novel All the Old Knives and touched upon the fact that it was being made into a film. Since I’m a fan of the book, I approached the subsequent movie version with some trepidation, but was bolstered by the knowledge that author Olen Steinhauer wrote its adaptation. Exiting the cinema (the Amazon movie is also available via streaming), I felt a sense of relief but also some quibbles of disappointment. There were elements that had been softened; some edge lost. And the book’s ending was wonderfully ambiguous unlike the screenplay. Again, a softening of sorts. Still, it’s hard to find fault when spending almost two hours in the dark with the outrageously attractive Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton.
The two actors are the focus of the narrative, and it is paramount that the audience feels the angst of their characters’ complex relationship: former lovers who share an entangled past. Years ago, they both worked for the CIA in Vienna until the aftermath of a terrorist attack prompted her to abruptly leave The Company and quickly settle into domesticity in lovely Carmel-by-the-Sea. He is still employed by the agency, which has re-opened the probe into the events surrounding the devastating lethal attack. The CIA dispatches him to her home turf to interview, perhaps implicate, her as regards to the events that drove her away from the agency. And from his arms. “Internal Affairs,” indeed. Lubricated by fine California wines during an extensive dinner, the duo reminisces and independently reflect, courtesy of flashbacks, on their history. As the sun sets in beautiful Carmel, much is laid bare. Regrets and recapitulation. Ties that bind can chafe and profoundly hurt.
The film is a largely cerebral exercise. It is not a spy-action movie. Yet director Janus Metz keeps the story moving at a good pace with the interjecting of the dynamic past into the more static present. While all eyes are on the stars of the film, it’s impossible to ignore actor Jonathan Pryce in a small role. His nuanced performance is multi-layered, somehow reminiscent of a memorable minor character in the universe of John Le Carré.
Of course, it is on the gorgeous shoulders of Pine and Newton that the film rests. Their sultry sex scenes are very believable. And in the buff, they are utterly buffed. Pine’s taut derrière is a sight that will haunt many a viewer’s dreams and perhaps give the average-saggy-tush-individual nightmares. But more important than their onscreen beauty, the actors convey a range of emotions that fits the complexity of the situation in which their characters are embroiled.
Getting back to my comparison with the novel, the filmed version of All the Old Knives yields to an expanded romantic tone which may appeal more to those in a darkened cinema; a tilt toward marketability, if you will. I am delighted to have experienced both book and film. I prefer the novel, which is often the case. A variation on “first love.” What ultimately pleases me most is that more people will read the now reissued book because of the movie tie-in. See the movie, read the book.
Read Sheila Merritt’s earlier review of the novel below: