A CALL TO SPY (2020) is a polished and sophisticated movie that tells the intriguing true story of British women spies putting their lives on the line in Nazi occupied France during World War II.
It calls to mind other recent gems about Britain’s World War II war effort, films like DARKEST HOUR (2017), DUNKIRK (2017), and THEIR FINEST (2016). While not quite as good as these movies, A CALL TO SPY nonetheless has a lot to offer for fans of World War II period pieces and stories about strong women.
I loved it.
British spies are dying left and right, and it seems their efforts are being thwarted by the Nazis at every turn. Exasperated, agency head Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) finally listens to his secretary and unofficial right hand person Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) and approaches Churchill seeking permission to train female spies, the thinking being they will be far less likely to be suspected than their male counterparts. To Buckmaster’s surprise, Churchill gives the idea the green light.
And so Vera goes about the business of recruiting, and two of her most notable recruits include Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). Noor is of Indian descent and is a Muslim pacifist, and she becomes one of the fastest senders of coded messages over the airwaves, an indispensable job known as the wireless operator, or as they are referred to in the movie, “the wireless.”
Virginia Hall is an American who spent time in France and wants nothing more to return there and beat back the Nazis. Her efforts to join the war effort have been thwarted because a hunting accident left her with a wooden leg. While Maurice Buckmaster rolls his eyes in frustration, Vera assures him of her choice, pointing out that her wooden leg will make her a least likely suspect to be a British spy.
The movie then follows these two women’s stories as they infiltrate Nazi occupied France. Virginia Hall emerges as the main character and most of the story revolves around her, as she exceeds expectations and becomes one of the most effective spies Britain has on the ground.
A CALL TO SPY really belongs to Sarah Megan Thomas. Not only does she play Virginia Hall, but she also wrote the screenplay. As Virginia Hall, Thomas delivers a noteworthy performance that carries the movie. She makes Virginia spirited, determined, and fearless, and ultimately the go-to spy on the ground. She becomes indispensable, and the film really hits its stride when the frustrated Nazis learn her identity and pull out all stops to hunt her down, and she has to use her smarts and gumption to get herself out of France.
Thomas’ screenplay is also excellent. Not only does it effortlessly tell these women’s stories and show how invaluable they were to the war effort, it also fleshes out all of the characters, even the supporting ones, and tells for the most part a riveting story. The one area where it’s not as strong is its third act, as after the climax of Virginia’s escape attempts from the Nazis, the film quietly makes its way towards its conclusion.
Radhika Apte is solid as pacifist Noor Inayat Khan, but the character clearly plays second fiddle to Virginia Hall here, mostly because of their ultimate fates while in France.
I enjoyed Stana Katic as Vera Atkins. She too is a determined character, as fearless as Virginia, only working from behind the scenes.Vera also has to operate in the shadows of the men around her, and not only that, but she is Jewish, and even in Britain, that fact poses problems for her. Katic is very good in the role.
Likewise, Linus Roache makes good as the stately and very weary Maurice Buckmaster. Roache captures the weight on Buckmaster’s shoulders and the pain of knowing, as he says it, that they’re trying their best but realize their best isn’t enough, as their spies continue to be discovered and executed.
There are also a couple of notable supporting performances as well. Rossif Sutherland, the son of Donald Sutherland, is quite effective as one of Virginia’s contacts, Dr. Chevain. They share a natural chemistry together, and Sutherland makes Chevain an empathic character.
Andrew Richardson plays another contact, Alfonse, a man who is much more active in the sabotage scene, and the sequence where he, Virginia, and others attempt to blow up a train is one of the more exciting moments in the movie. Richardson is memorable in the role.
A CALL TO SPY was directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, and she gives this one a cinematic feel. She captures the look of the time, and the place, and there are also a lot of cinematic visuals here, from Nazi occupied streets and sad worn faces of dominated locals, to nighttime shots of spying and espionage.
That being said, A CALL TO SPY is a quiet piece with the emphasis more on drama than action, the type of movie which would play at your local arthouse theater rather than the multiplex.
…..A quick aside. Movie theaters. Hmm. Remember them? How fast things change!…..
It still works though, and works well. It tells a powerful story and is full of fleshed out three dimensional characters.
And since Sarah Megan Thomas wrote the screenplay and stars as Virginia Hall, and excels at both, A CALL TO SPY really belongs to her. She’s a talent to keep an eye on.
I for one am really looking forward to her next project.