THE STORY – At the dawn of World War II, a desperate Winston Churchill orders his new spy agency to train women for covert operations. Together, these female agents help undermine the Nazi regime in France, leaving an unmistakable legacy in their wake.
THE CAST – Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache & Rossif Sutherland
THE TEAM – Lydia Dean Pilcher (Director) & Sarah Megan Thomas (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 123 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
Sometimes it seems like we have more than enough World War II films to last us a lifetime, but “A Call to Spy” tells a unique story not yet seen on screen – one about the female spies who were part of Churchill’s Secret Army. The film is inspired by the incredible true stories of Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). Another thing that sets the film apart is that it isn’t just about women – it was also made by women. It’s directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, while Thomas wrote and produced the film in addition to starring as Virginia.
The film opens in August 1941 as government worker Vera Atkins has finally gotten approval to train a group of female spies to send to France to obtain information that could help turn the tide of the war. While the program is met with some challenges (such as one of her colleagues insisting, “Miss Atkins, make sure they’re pretty”), the women are trained alongside their male counterparts before being transported to begin their work. The film focuses on three women specifically within a large ensemble cast, all based on real and impressive women.
Vera is the spy mistress of the Special Operations Executive agency and is battling her own personal issues while trying to ensure the safety of her spies abroad. Virginia is an American who wants to be a diplomat more than anything but has been turned down due to her gender and her wooden leg, which is the result of a hunting accident. Noor is a highly skilled wireless operator who grew up mostly in France, born to an American mother and a Muslim-Indian father of noble blood. She’s a pacifist who writes fairy stories, but like Virginia and Vera, she believes in defeating Hitler above all else.
Pilcher and Thomas deftly weave the three women’s stories around each other, with enough connection between the three to never feel disjointed. Virginia’s story is the heart of the film and in many ways the most compelling, particularly as she goes through physical transformations both from disguises and the strain on her from her work. All three women give solid performances and do credit to the remarkable women they’re bringing to life.
“A Call to Spy” is very different from your typical war film. In fact, there aren’t any actual battle scenes. The focus is very much on the female spies and the networks they build in France as they attempt to cause problems for the Nazis and spread encouragement. However, there are still a handful of very intense scenes as spies are tortured and killed, ensuring that the danger of their mission is never far from the audience’s mind. Pilcher builds tension well while also allowing the movie to have appropriate tonal shifts. It’s remarkable to see a World War II film focusing on a woman of color, a disabled woman, and a Jewish woman.
The film also provides a glimpse at life in France during wartime as the women try to build resistance amongst the French people. It’s perhaps an overly rosy view of how many French people were willing to resist Nazi occupation, but that’s tempered by how it reveals the casual anti-Semitism within Britain at the time, even within its government. It even addresses how the Vichy government used propaganda to turn the French against the Jewish people.
It’s aesthetically different from many movies about the period, with women’s dresses and French towns allowing for more variance than the normal uniforms and battlegrounds. The production and costume design of the film are lovely, and it’s impressive in scope with a multitude of locations used. Katic, in particular, has some very beautiful hairstyles, and there are a handful of nice editing moments throughout.
While the film itself might be somewhat conventional, the subject matter of “A Call to Spy” is certainly not. The movie definitely shows the unfortunate trial and error nature of sabotage and spying, but it also highlights the friendship and camaraderie amongst the women involved. Interestingly, while showing that they were doing their best, it critiques that the British government wasn’t able to better protect its agents. According to the information at the end of the movie, thirteen of Vera Atkins’s 39 female agents died during the war, but their sacrifices are honored in “A Call to Spy.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – This might be another World War II movie, but it illuminates the roles of women who have largely gone unsung and unappreciated.