Lydia Dean Pilcher, a noted producer, with over 35 feature films to her credit, including The Darjeeling Limited and Vanity Fair, makes her directing debut with A Call to Spy. Picking up from the point in World War II where France falls to Nazi occupation, leaving Britain now shorn of a key ally, A Call to Spy tells how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill establishes a new spy agency (the Special Operations Executive) to disrupt German operations. The plan is to place spies throughout France to build resistance and to initiate acts of sabotage. With no bank of suitably experienced spies, amateurs – women – will be found and trained.
Inspired by true stories (and following true historical figures), we follow Vera Atkins (Castle‘s Stana Katic), the woman tasked with recruiting the candidates. Virginia Hall, her first candidate, is an American amputee, and portrayed by Sarah Megan Thomas, the film’s writer and producer. The second is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), an Islamic pacifist of Indian extraction, born in Russia and raised in the UK.
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In an efficient opening act, we follow the initiation of the recruitment scheme, see Virginia turned down for diplomatic appointment on account of her disability (which is revealed without fanfare), and see Vera and Virginia meet for the first time, and the impression they make upon each other. It is established that both women are single; with Vera having a love interest missing in action, and Virginia’s injury having turned off a suitor. Virginia’s drive is a lifelong dream to be a diplomat.
Noor, by contrast, wishes to see an Indian receive high military honours. By the 15-minute mark we have established our three leads, and been taken through their motivations and the outline of the task ahead of them. From there the women enter what is presented as a mixture of basic training and an audition process for deployment. Circuit diagrams, physical tests, stealth, learning Morse Code, and discussing the situation across Europe is their business for the next section of the film, as Vera watches her charges intently, and we see the candidates confront their doubts and fears.
With training complete, and the caveat expressed that the women have a fifty percent chance of returning safely from the field, their cover names and roles within France are outlined to them. Act two establishes their role in supporting local agents with money, safe houses, or anything else they need to seed resistance within the newly occupied France. The film sells very well that this way of doing things is a necessity, in a time where the flow of intelligence across the Channel has ground to a halt, and the occupying forces will be on the lookout for any suspicious looking males. All of this is within the first half an hour of the film’s running time.
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From there, we move to a more ‘nuts and bolts’ tale of the work of the women. Pilcher establishes a taut, tense tone, where suspicion is everywhere, the leads are forced to hide in plain sight, and are challenged constantly to think on their feet; as they encounter officials and law enforcement and are required to recite cover stories that are often embellished with improvised details – details which Virginia is visibly uncomfortable reciting.
Virginia (undercover as ‘Bridget’) is revealed through a mixture of scene specific detail and what are either diary entries or reports back to Vera – this is not completely clear. We cut regularly to command as progress in France is considered, and orders given to ‘Bridget’. Meanwhile, Noor begins working from base on communications as a radio operative, though circumstances still force her out into the field, against Vera’s wishes and better judgement.
All leads are terrific, with Thomas in particularly displaying a fully rounded mix of fear, strength, and courage. Katic looks a natural leader, with the sole caveat that, vocally, the actress sounds like she once heard Pathé News, or the BBC World Service, and is reciting a British Received Pronunciation accent from her memories of that (at times, anyway). The male-dominated HQ is peopled by characters that stay just the correct side of misogynistic cliché, with their respect for Vera grounding them somewhat. Apte’s Noor is all quiet determination, laced with a good degree of shyness and, perhaps, naiveté. The development curve of both recruits is displayed effectively.
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The story lacks for an over-arching focus; we aren’t building up to any defining point in the Second World War. As such, this, although never mistaken for a TV production, may have been better suited to longer-form storytelling. A Call to Spy takes a much dramatised era, and tells us a tale from an angle long since neglected. That it does so – largely – with an absence of cliché, is to its credit. Years from now, though, when and if this film is remembered, it will be more for its premise than anything in the story it is telling.
The piecemeal nature of the storytelling does blunt its impact somewhat: there is a sense of real fear, but without any real sustained tension. Though for historians, obviously, a number of real events are covered, and covered well at that: with Noor’s eventual fate well-documented, and the story eventually coalescing around this. This said, it is a well-made, enjoyable and engaging piece of work, and one which adds to the perspectives on this conflict by giving us a fresh point of view – and it is that point of view, not the tale, which matters here. That is to be valued, and leaves A Call to Spy as a film that can be recommended.
A Call to Spy is out in Cinemas and on Digital HD on 23rd October from Signature Entertainment.