Review: A Worthy Chronicle of Female Spies in WWII, A Call to Spy Tries to Do Too Much

A few years ago, a couple of great World War II films were released; even more than 70 years after the war ended, it remains a deep source of narratives worth exploring. In April of 2017, Gemma Arterton charmed us in Their Finest, the story of a British secretary turned scriptwriter for pro-Ally propoganda films; in December of that year, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour chronicled Winston Churchill’s early and pivotal decisions to fight the ever-threatening Third Reich (it also won Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal of the cigar-smoking Prime Minister). Both were polished, glossy productions with marquee cast who delivered on strong, rousing scripts to remind us of the personal and professional sacrifices made to fight back the enemy during that crucial moment in history.

A Call to Spy
Image courtesy of IFC Films

Now, A Call to Spy joins the ranks of worthy wartime dramas exploring the lesser-known stories of those who upended their lives for the war effort. Written by Sarah Megan Thomas (who also stars in the film as covert agent Virginia Hall), A Call to Spy is set in the very particular period early in the war when British intelligence was still figuring out how best to infiltrate behind enemy lines and communicate priority intel back to England. With the country’s men of a certain age off fighting on the front lines, the country began utilizing women in clandestine roles, training them just as vigorously as male agents to withstand interrogation and torture should they ever be found out by their German enemies. Longtime producer turned director Lydia Dean Pilcher creates a world heavy with both the trauma of war and the burden of obligation the film’s main characters feel to get their jobs right.

A brief prologue confirms the film is inspired by “true stories,” and it’s the plurality there that seems most on display throughout the film’s long two hours. Though several of the characters in the film are based on real-life spies (Noor Inayat Khan (played by Radhika Apte) was indeed the first female wireless operator to be sent into enemy territory, and Vera Atkins was actually the intelligence officer who made the decision to send her), there’s something of a cobbled-together feel to the plot as it tries to give several women their due but ultimately ends up not allowing enough space for any of their stories to truly shine. The lives of Khan, Atkins and Hall individually could each warrant a feature film to themselves, so wrapping up a narrative that involves all of them—though it ensures plenty of drama—feels slightly shoehorned in the end.

Stana Katic (“Castle”) stars as Vera Atkins, who with her immediate supervisor Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) is desperate to find more agents to train and send into the field; as France faces German occupation, the Allies see it as imperative to put operators on the ground as part of the resistance. So Atkins sets out to recruit promising women with the intelligence, ambition and patriotism to become the first female spies to serve the cause. With a lifelong dream of being a diplomat unfulfilled because of a hunting accident that left her without a leg, American Virginia Hall instead finds herself on Atkins’ recruitment list to be a spy in the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Likewise, Khan’s aptitude with the wireless radios used to communicate coded messages makes her a perfect candidate to put her skills to use for the war. Soon, Hall is stationed in rural France, overseeing a resistance effort with a group of operatives on the ground; Khan isn’t far behind, sent into occupied France with her trusty wireless before she’s even completed her tactical training.

The majority of A Call to Spy follows the three women and the challenges, close calls and difficult decisions they face every day. Atkins, a Romanian immigrant, is pushing to receive her naturalization papers from the country to which she’s devoted her life; Khan’s work continues to be the target of German forces as they play a game of cat and mouse chasing her signal as she’s constantly on the move; and Hall assumes several different identities to ensure she can continue to support the resistance without being discovered. There’s no historical central focal point to the narrative, some battle or other wartime milestone leading each of their stories to converge; though the women do continue to cross paths throughout the film, it’s only in passing when the script apparently deems it necessary. Each of the actresses tasked with portraying these real-life heroines does a fine job, but therein lies the problem—there’s nothing at all wrong with the performances, but there’s nothing terribly remarkable, either.

At the very least, A Call to Spy makes a strong case for the value in putting greater causes for humanity before oneself, a reminder all too many could use these days.

A Call to Spy opens Friday, October 2, at select Chicagoland theaters and on VOD.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone