A Call to Spy

M, 124 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This handsomely produced American film is set in Europe during World War II, when things were going badly for the Allies. It was looking likely Hitler’s forces would cross the Channel at any minute.

A Call to Spy was filmed in Philadelphia and Budapest. Locations that pose as France and London, in subterfuge entirely appropriate to a tale about espionage.

Based loosely on the remarkable facts, it is about women who became British spies early in 1940-41, when Britain’s prospects of survival had hit rock bottom.

The British did not send women into the field, until then. When some gutsy and dedicated women responded to Churchill’s call for women to join a ‘secret army’ working undercover in Nazi-occupied Europe. This was the same organisation that Nancy Wake, the ‘white mouse’, belonged to.

A Call to Spy isn’t a million miles from the film Charlotte Gray, released in 2001 with Cate Blanchett’s character a blend of famous female spies.

A Call to Spy is directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, whose filmography mostly includes production credits. Her direction is fine, and the high production values have contributed to convincing sets and costume that evoke the wartime period well enough. However, there are other weaknesses to this, a story whose telling is long overdue.

The main character here is Virginia Hall, a woman who lived for danger. She was American, a brave woman who tried to enter the US foreign service but was rejected because of her disability, a wooden leg that was the result of a hunting accident.

Here she is played by actor Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay.

Hall eventually opted for espionage, joining up to Churchill’s Special Operations Executive that worked in the field with the French Resistance. The SOE was sometimes dubbed the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ due to its clandestine existence.

After service in the field, Hall slipped into the obscurity she seemed to choose, but still received medals for outstanding service including the French Croix de Guerre. A glance at her Smithsonian entry online confirms an extraordinary wartime record. Her prosthesis, a wooden leg known as ‘Cuthbert’, has even been honoured.

Postwar, she tried again to become a diplomat.  Eventually she joined a newly formed agency known as the CIA, becoming one of its key operatives.

In addition to Hall, the central character, there is another woman of great potential interest, Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), apparently the daughter of the man who introduced Sufism to the West. A pacifist Sufi Muslim who joined the SOE, she was an able radio operator, the first to be sent into occupied France.

Why, with such a scintillating backstory, is it low on dramatic tension?

Noor ended up on her own in France, as did Virginia. She showed exceptional courage during Gestapo torture and was eventually shot in Dachau.

She became the first Muslim female to be decorated as a British war hero, receiving the highest civilian medal, the George Cross, posthumously.

The facts are all extraordinary.

So why, with such a scintillating backstory, is the film rather bland and low on dramatic tension? The writing is pedestrian and there is little that shows how remarkable these women and Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the woman who recruited them, really were.

Unfortunately, there are also too many moments when the performances of key characters don’t ring true. Apte as Noor and Thomas as Virginia and many others are fine but there are scenes between Katic’s Atkins and Linus Roache’s Maurice Buckmaster (Law and Order), her boss, that let the ensemble down. Very clunky performances.

The screenplay needed more research built into it, to make clear the significance of these women and their unique stories. There is instead a screed of stunning facts left for the very end, before the final credits.

The historical background is riveting. Wish I could say the same of the film.

This true tale of espionage, little known, has managed to beat the latest James Bond fantasy to the cinema screen. Another better film may come along that does justice to this remarkable story.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2020