A Call to Spy – Film Review

Palace Electric Canberra
Preview 20 December 2020 at 4.10pm
Nationally from 26 December

Running Time: 123 minutes, rated M

This fictionalised historical drama from the 2020 British Film Festival is inspired by real events, though it takes the liberty of throwing together characters whose paths did not actually cross.  

It is the story of three little-known female heroes of WWII, engaged in Churchill’s ring of female spies, who came under the umbrella of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) Their mission was to conduct sabotage and build a resistance.

A Call to Spy takes its name from A Call to Arms and I am not alone in wondering about the saleable wisdom of this title.

In this film version, SOE’s spymistress, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), recruits two unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an ambitious American with a wooden leg, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a Muslim pacifist. Together, these women help to undermine the Nazi regime in France. 

The story is absorbing and brings to light the role of women, often unacknowledged or unknown, in the Allied war effort of WW 11. Clearly contrasting the clumsy and ineffectual public service war office mentality with the get-it-done attitude of its female leads, the film does take a fairly heavy-handed approach to this messaging.

However, it comes at a time of renewed interest in the period both in literature and film and in the context of the ‘me too’ movement when the views and perspectives of women are increasingly being heard. So much of our war fiction and depiction has focused on men rushing around on battlefields or commanding strategy from war offices.

There is no doubt of the immense contribution to the war effort of the plucky Virginia Hall, recipient of the DSC, Croix de Guerre and an MBE. Wireless operator Noor Inayat Khan was equally remarkable, betrayed by a friend, then captured by the Gestapo and executed at Dachau. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her service in the SOE, the highest civilian decoration in the United Kingdom.

Their stories are no doubt less known than that of Vera Atkins who was part of the team that evacuated the Enigma codebreakers from Poland. Certainly, they are worth telling and one can understand the impetus for the writer and producer of this film.

The film had its world premiere in June 2019, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and was released in the United States in October of this year, in cinemas and on video on demand.

It is clear from a range of others’ reactions that this film has not quite hit its mark and I will add my criticisms to that body of opinion. It lacks pace and while it explores dramatic events in some detail it seems to merely add length rather than depth by doing so.

There was some compensatory character sketching but not great character development. The acting performances of the cast contributed to the script rather than drawing from it.

Nevertheless, I did find the film very moving and its ending and quiet black screen information end titles perhaps the most arresting part of the film. Our horror over the actions of the Nazi regime can only be reinforced by this examination of this history.

That a few like these women demonstrated outstanding courage in the face of the brutality and inhuman treatment meted out by the Nazis is cause for celebration and can only engender admiration. We do need to hear their stories. That so many were cowed by this brute force is sobering and one would hope salutary and instructive.

Awards

  • WINNER: Best Female-Directed Narrative Feature, Audience Award, Whistler Film Festival 2019 
  • NOMINATED: Best International Feature Film, Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019 
  • WINNER: ADL Stand Up Award, Santa Barbara International film Festival 2020 

Credits

  • Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher
  • Written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas
  • Starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte & Linus Roache