Characters Of Henry Pelham And Celia Harrison in ‘All the Old Knives,’ Explained


Revelations aren’t always welcoming, especially when there are two agents and former lovebirds involved in a hijacking event that shook the CIA. This may be too much to take in at first, but it is what it is. When love interferes with global espionage, it becomes difficult to differentiate one from the other. You do what you can to protect, whether it is your lover or your country, and sometimes the line between these two protections gets blurred. “All the Old Knives” is a love letter that sees an end to this.

‘All the Old Knives’ Plot Summary

8 years ago, Flight 127 was hijacked by a terrorist group Al-Da’irat in Vienna. CIA Vienna was unable to rescue the passengers, all of whom died. But now a terrorist has been captured who reveals that the terrorists in the plane received intel from the CIA station in Vienna itself. This terrorist is Ilyas Shishani who was once Henry Pelham’s trusted source in Moscow, Russia but the CIA gave him up to the Russians as a part of an intel trade-off. Henry is sent to investigate Bill Compton and Celia Harrison, Henry’s ex, both of whom are apparent suspects for a call placed to Tehran from the office on the day of the hijack. While Bill straightaway declines from answering Henry stating that his pride is hurt, his dinner with Celia reveals the truth. Henry is the one dialed the call from Bill’s office to pin the betrayal on him. And Celia had discovered this. His betrayal is why she left him. And it is him who gave up the intel to Ilyas, involved in the hijack. But Henry tells Celia that he did it only to save Celia’s life that unbeknownst to her was at Ilyas’s disposal. Henry is ultimately poisoned as the whole dinner was a setup by CIA to confirm Ilyas’s intel. Celia leaves the restaurant shocked and in pain.

See More: ‘All The Old Knives’ Review: Thandiwe Newton And Chris Pine Partake In An Intense Conversation

Henry Pelham

For a person like Henry, who is so bent upon facts, only love could have swayed him from his path. But clearly, it happened when Henry had moved on from love as well as his past. It has been eight years since the failed rescue mission, since he betrayed his country, and since Celia left him without saying a word. However, the fact that he is chained to his past is made evident when he is sent to “investigate” Celia and Bill. Clearly, he knows that neither was responsible for sharing intel with the terrorists inside Flight 127. But he is still willing to pin it on Bill. This can be due to two reasons. Either that or it is the only way he can save Celia, whom he thinks is the CIA’s primary suspect. Or maybe he is trying to save himself. This is possibly why he wants to meet Ilyas when his boss, Vick Wallinger, tells him that Ilyas has been caught. Unfortunately, Ilyas is dead. This could be a lie. Vick tells him to send him on his way to meet Celia, which is basically the first step of the whole plan that would end with Henry’s death. Vick even tells him that the CIA cannot afford the embarrassment of prosecution after eight years’ worth of absolutely no progress. So the needful will have to be done. For Henry, this is a sign that he will have to kill Celia discreetly. But this rather seems like Vik’s cryptic way of telling Henry that he is about to die. The final words between Henry and Vik are when Henry asks him, “You gonna say it?” to which Vik replies, “No, Henry, I’m not.” This is really ironic since Henry is expecting Vik to tell him to kill Celia. But Vik says no, i.e., he will not or cannot tell him that Celia will bring about his death. Henry goes to meet Bill in London before going to California. There he also tries to pin the leak of intel on Bill.

When Henry reaches Carmel, California, where he is going to meet Celia for dinner, we find out that he has a personal agent (codename: Treble) on standby who will kill Celia on Henry’s word. While talking to him, Henry tells him that his service “won’t be necessary.” This is not only because he knows that Celia isn’t involved, but he is also trying to keep Celia out of danger since he thinks that she is a suspect for the CIA.

Going back to the hijack event, when Henry was given a location by Tahar, and he reached there, Henry met Ilyas. He realized that Ilyas was behind the hijack, and when Celia left the meeting to meet a woman from the Muslim Women’s Foundation, it was at the same location. It was a trap laid by Ilyas to get him to talk, using Celia as bait. Henry gave the intel to save Celia’s life, knowing that it put the lives of all the people inside Flight 127 in more danger. That is why we see him trying to convince Bill to put into effect a plan of action. He knows that with the intel, the terrorist with probably block any further communication and god knows what else. Knowing that things would turn for him eventually, he then goes to Bill’s office and dials the Tehran number as if to show that it was Bill who made the call. As Henry had expected, Ahmad was killed soon after, and later on, news arrived that everyone inside Flight 127 was dead. Immediately after, Celia leaves him forever.

Till now, Henry had no idea why Celia left him. All that mattered to him was that he was going to meet her. But as it turns out, Celia reveals that she doubted Henry’s involvement all along. Now that Henry has been ripped off for his deeds, he finally reveals to Celia that he did what he did to save her life. But the big question that arises here is: how do we judge Henry for all that he has done? He gave up crucial intel to the terrorists that led to the deaths of 120 people. But if he hadn’t, Celia would have been dead. Considering that he is an agent, our minds immediately turn to the well-known word in the world of global espionage: sacrifice. If his seniors knew about it, they would certainly have told Henry to sacrifice her. After all, it was one woman against 120 people. But Henry sacrifices himself and the 120 people for Celia. This is certainly beyond judgment. The things that love can make us do are sometimes beyond our reasoning with them. We can either hate him for it or love him for it, but Celia will take Henry to her grave.

Celia Harrison

On the day of the hijack, Celia looked up the phone logs of the Vienna station. Since Austria couldn’t be involved in leaking intel (as they didn’t know that flight 127 had a CIA agent, Ahmad, and thus couldn’t betray him), the only way for intel to reach the terrorist was if someone from the Vienna station betrayed Ahmad. Upon checking the logs, she finds that a Tehran number has been dialed from Bill’s office landline. On dialing the number from her phone, a man receives it in Iranian dialect, thus confirming that it wasn’t to any American over in Tehran. The next morning, she finds the same number on Henry’s phone. This is what shook her the most. Henry had just asked her to move in with him. And right after the first night they spend together, she finds evidence that may link the man she loves to the failed rescue of the 120 people. He would eventually become the reason for the deaths of all the people on flight 127. But we must keep in mind that this was no confirmation of Henry’s involvement, only a doubt. However, Celia couldn’t live with this and thus decided to leave. The reason she left was not that she hated Henry, but that she didn’t want to be subjected to the pain that she would have undergone if Henry was revealed to be the mole.

Henry didn’t know that Celia had already seen the Tehran number on his phone that morning. The fact is that if Henry hadn’t dialed the number from Bill’s office, things would have been different. Neither would Celia have found the number in the logs, nor would she have recognized it on Henry’s phone. But they would have been together but, and it’s a big but, only for eight years. As fate would have it, Ilyas would be captured, and he would give up Henry to the CIA. Either way, Celia was bound to be hurt beyond measure due to Henry’s actions that cost the lives of 120 people. So it was perhaps fate again that Celia saw the logs and Henry’s phone, and decided to leave him right away. It did hurt her, but it saved her a lot more of it.

In the present, when Celia receives the text message from Henry for dinner, she contacts the CIA. This means that right after Ilyas was caught and he gave Henry up, Celia was informed, and this confirmed her doubts. A plan was chalked out that included Henry being sent to investigate her. She would only have to serve as bait for confirmation from Henry himself.

Henry and Celia meet at Restaurant Vin de Vie in Carmel, California. Naturally, all that Henry can do and needs to do is ask Celia about her whereabouts on the day of the hijack. And also probably try to steer the conversation towards Bill and close in on him. But Celia not only knows that Henry is the mole, but her immense love for Bill further makes her want to hate Henry. But this is until Henry tells her the truth.

In the end, the conflict that takes place inside her is between the pain she feels due to Henry’s actions and the pain she feels when she finds out that Henry did what he did to save her life. She would have died had it not been for Henry. Now, she will have to live with this conflict her whole life because, while she chose to leave Henry, Henry chose her over 120 people, as well as himself. The question is: how will she be able to live with this truth?

“All the Old Knives” gives us an espionage thriller that is able to make its mark on a personal level. While Celia’s pain isn’t something we will be able to comprehend, Henry’s death makes us question our own moral ambiguity. Overall, the film leaves us with a feeling of inability, one that will only cease to exist when we decide to choose a side, be it Celia’s or Henry’s. After all, this is what espionage is all about, right?

See More: ‘All the Old Knives’ Ending, Explained: Did Celia Really Betray Henry?

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Shubhabrata Dutta
Shubhabrata Dutta
When Shubhabrata is not breaking his head trying to find out more about the trending movies , he spends time with his mom and dad, surrounds himself with books, listens to songs, plays games and writes poems (P.S- Tries to). He loves going for walks, prefers full sleeve t-shirts and seldom wishes he was Peter Parker's neighbor or had a small hut of his own in the suburbs of Dublin, Ireland.

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