Spies, sabotage, and the contributions of women to the war effort are the focus of the historical World War II drama, A Call to Spy. Sarah Megan Thomas wrote, produced, and stars in the thriller as Virginia Hall, a young American woman with a wooden leg living in London in 1941. When she’s rejected for the position of a diplomat, Hall’s recruited by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), secretary to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache), to be part of a new department in the war effort against the Nazis.
Winston Churchill put Colonel Buckmaster and Atkins in charge of creating a spy agency called the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive). The purpose was to train men and women in the art of self-defense, collecting intelligence, and sabotage. Once trained, they’re then dropped behind enemy lines in France to gather information about the Nazis and to sabotage them using explosives.
Extremely ambitious and determined, Hall becomes one of their best agents and is one of the first to be dropped into occupied France to begin collecting intelligence and to team up with the French Resistance against the Nazis. It’s not long before she’s joined by another operative – female wireless operator Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) – to assist in the fight. Hall is so successful working with the Resistance that she becomes one of the most hunted spies. Nazis considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”
Inspired by real events, A Call to Spy focuses on and explores the efforts of female spies during the early days of World War II. It’s extremely well-crafted, with excellent production and costume design bringing back to life the dark days of Britain and occupied France.
Sarah Megan Thomas delivers a solid, although at times heavy-handed, performance as Virginia Hall, the first female spy in WWII. Thomas portrays Hall as a woman who’s fiercely patriotic and determined to do her part to fight the Nazis and defeat fascism.
Stana Katic delivers the best performance in the film as Vera Atkins, the woman in charge of recruiting the female agents and then becoming their “den mother” – double-checking their outfits and papers for missions, acting as liaison with their families, and staying long hours in the decoding room waiting for word from them. Katic portrays Atkins as a strong and highly capable woman who’s not only confident about Hall and Khan’s abilities but also protective. Katic’s also terrific at portraying Atkins’ concerns over her own private struggle to become a British citizen (she’s Romanian by birth) while dealing with a guarded and distrustful government. She steals every scene she’s in.
Linus Roache is well cast as Colonel Buckmaster, the leader of the S.O.E. Roache shows Buckmaster as a strong leader who initially seems put-upon to recruit women to be spies but quickly embraces the idea by seeing just how strong and dedicated both Hall and Khan are.
Roache and Katic have strong chemistry in their shared scenes as two professionals who are loyal and devoted to each other professionally. One of the best scenes in the film involves Katic as Atkins confessing her concerns about being seen as expendable and even a liability by their higher-ups because of her Romanian heritage. Roache as Buckmaster assures her she’s essential to him and the S.O.E. It’s a scene that could have felt forced in less capable hands, but Roache and Katic play it with just the right amount of emotion and drama.
The production design and costumes are perhaps the strongest elements of the film, perfectly capturing the look and feel of Europe in the darkest years of WWII. The automobiles, outfits, uniforms, weapons, buildings, and jails all look authentic and marvelous.
The film does have a real problem in that it lacks any real sense of tension and suspense. By choosing to focus on both Hall and Khan, especially after they split up and work in two different areas of France, the movie feels divided and suffers from the split focus. There’s no real sense of dread or fear as the Gestapo hunts Hall and Khan in the second half of the film. Also, Thomas never displays any kind of concern or apprehension as Hall goes through checkpoint after checkpoint while being hunted.
Still, with strong performances by Katic and Roache, excellent costumes and production design, and an intriguing story, A Call to Spy is a film worth watching – especially for history buffs.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, smoking, and language
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Directed By: Lydia Dean Pilcher