The truth, they say, can be stranger than fiction. In Lydia Dean Pilcher’s A Call to Spy, the true story of remarkable women spies might not be all that strange, but it is powerful.
Virginia Hall is sometimes touted as America’s first woman spy. While the title might not be entirely accurate, she was one of the most storied espionage agents of World War II. You might say she was the American version of Nancy Wake, the equally renowned Australian (or maybe Kiwi?) agent. If you want to learn more about the real-life Hall, check out the Smithsonian Institution’s terrific Sidedoor podcast and their episode about her titled “The Milkmaid Spy”. For the purposes of this film, writer and star Sarah Megan Thomas has naturally had to pare down some of the story, not least to fit in the stories of two other women – fellow operative Noor Inayat Khan, and their SOE handler Vera Atkins.
The film opens in the dark days of 1941. Hitler’s armies have trampled Europe. France has been conquered, though the puppet Vichy regime rules the southern part of the country. Churchill has personally ordered the formation of the Special Operations Executive – otherwise known as the “office of ungentlemanly warfare”. The SOE’s task is to infiltrate occupied Europe, gather intelligence and carry out sabotage. SOE head Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) tasks his former secretary Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) with recruiting “ladies” into the ranks of Churchill’s spies. Atkins picks a number of recruits, including Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an American who’s been living in Europe for several years; and Khan (Radhika Apte), the pacifist daughter of a Sufi mystic. After training, they’re sent to mainland Europe.
Hall ends up in Lyon, a Vichy city at the time, under the cover of being an American reporter. Khan however faces an even more harrowing task in the occupied zone. Both quickly discover the dangers of the job. Quite apart from German soldiers and Vichy police, collaborators and informers are everywhere. A chance conversation – even a misplaced word – can lead to arrest; or worse. Even though Hall finds initial success in building a Resistance cell, the net is tightening. Two events portend great trouble – first the arrival of the ruthless Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann) in Lyon, and the German takeover of the Vichy zone in November 1942. Facing certain death if captured, Hall makes a perilous break for freedom. Khan meanwhile is battling monumental odds trying to send encrypted messages from occupied Paris.
A Call to Spy (a dreadful title by the way) tells an important but overlooked historical story. You can certainly see parallels to films like Hidden Figures. No one could question the valour of Hall, Khan and their colleagues. Nor could anyone doubt their invaluable contribution to the Allied efforts to defeat fascism. But Pilcher’s film felt generally leaden to me (a few tense sequences aside). The pacing felt stodgy, and the plotlines meandered. That wasn’t helped by Thomas’s script, which tries to cram a lot of events and characters into the film’s 2-hour running time. Perhaps if the film had followed the story of either Khan or Hall, it would have been tighter. But including both probably doesn’t do justice to either.
Cinematography from Robby Baumgartner (Midway) and Miles Goodall gives the film a grim pallor, in keeping with the subject matter. But they have to resort to a lot of tight shots in order to disguise the shooting locations in Hungary and the US as France, which adds to the disjointed feel. Props to production designer Kim Jennings (Ocean’s Eight) who brings the wartime setting to life.
Thomas brings a sense of steely determination to her role as Hall; though I felt Radhike Apte provided more depth to her character as Khan. Stana Katic (possibly best known for her role in the TV series Castle) seems an odd choice to play Atkins. She however makes the most of the role, a rather strange British accent (explained in the film) notwithstanding. Linus Roache doesn’t have much to do but display a stiff upper lip as Buckmaster, but Rossif Sutherland fares rather better as Hall’s French ally Dr Chevain.
A Call to Spy tells an important and emotionally resonant story, no doubt. For all its technical merit, I found the way it told the story rather pedestrian however. Still, it deserves to find an appreciative audience to honour its subjects.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television