It couldn’t have been comforting for a few civilian women in World War II-era England to learn the spy agency they’d just been recruited to was run by people who were figuring it out as they went. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary people to measure their courage against the scourge of Nazi occupiers in France.
Based on real events and people, “A Call to Spy” is about early female agents in the Special Operations Executive, a hastily organized British spy agency. A key officer operating without a rank, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), finds two unusual candidates to go undercover in France: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). Virginia is an American with a wooden leg. Noor is a Muslim pacifist. The two become key agents in the British espionage effort.
It’s notable the film should be “FFF” rated; that is, its writer/producer, director and stars are all female, and it contains many scenes of women concerning themselves with subjects other than men. That makes it a rarity among espionage films. The lead characters are new to the spy world and as integrating women into such field work is new at the time, their female recruiter is finding her way as well. They’re trained to kill if necessary, but this isn’t an action movie. It’s about these specific women taking on crucial real-life missions, risking their lives and learning on the job. It’s not glamorous. There are no Aston Martins with machine guns. There are just heavy radio kits and the insecurity of operating in a foreign country among Nazis and French collaborators.
That it’s written and produced by a woman (Thomas, who plays Virginia) and directed by one (Lydia Dean Pilcher, a two-time Emmy-winning producer) means the cinematic approach at least has the opportunity to differ from the countless specimens of these films we’ve all seen — though budgetary limitations likely had something to do with the filmmaking choices as well.
The film suffers, perhaps, from straddling too many worlds at once, and there’s a notable lack of urgency at times. We bounce among the three women’s stories, spending time (for instance) with Vera’s struggle for U.K. citizenship while the others’ lives are on the line. We never tangibly sink into the experience of any of the women. We don’t feel the building tension of the closing Gestapo net, the seeming impossibility of a snowy mountain passage or the simple, gritty fear of walking down the street in Paris, knowing every German soldier you pass is looking for you.
The emphasis is more on the courage than the suspense, as when the agency head (Linus Roache) tells Virginia, “The Gestapo won’t go easy on you because you’re a woman,” and she retorts, “I don’t plan to go easy on them because they’re men.”
It’s refreshing to come at the spy genre from a different angle and rewarding to be introduced to these extraordinary women. Just don’t expect a pulse-pounder or even a particularly atmospheric, experiential film.