A CALL TO SPY

A CALL TO SPY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher

Stars: Sarah Megab Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Marc Rissmann, Rossif Sutherland.

This WWII set drama brings to life a little known piece of WWII history – or should that be herstory? A Call To Spy is based around the founding of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which Churchill had formed with the express purpose of sending unconventional spies into Nazi occupied France with the aim of “setting Europe ablaze.” Female agents were sent undercover to France to engage in “ungentlemanly acts” of sabotage and gathering vital intelligence to help the Allies in the war effort. Churchill believed that female agents would be able to move around occupied France more easily.

The film opens in 1941. Hitler’s army has conquered France. Under the leadership of Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache, from Law & Order, etc) and his former secretary Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, from tv series Castle, etc), the SOE recruited a number of French-speaking female agents into their ranks and trained them in the necessary skills. Their assignments were highly dangerous. Foremost amongst them were the American Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an aspiring diplomat denied higher postings in embassies due to her prosthetic leg, and Khan (Indian star Radhika Apte, from The Wedding Guest, etc), a pacifist of mixed parentage who was a gifted radio operator.

Hall posed as an American journalist and was sent to Lyons, in Vichy controlled France, where she established an impressive network of agents. She was a thorn in the side of the Nazis until the arrival of the notorious Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann), who was determined to track her down. Hall faced constant danger from the Gestapo, collaborators and the Vichy police. Meanwhile Khan had to constantly move around as she continued to send vital encrypted messages to England, even as the net tightened around her. She was eventually betrayed and executed.

A Call To Spy is based on the true stories of the selfless heroism and courage of these brave women who were recognised as amongst the first female spies of WWII. This gives the usual tropes of the wartime drama and spy saga a more feminist sensibility and allows it to explore broader themes of misogyny and ingrained sexism. A postscript tells us that approximately one third of these agents were caught, tortured and executed. A Call To Spy is something of a passion project for Thomas who has researched the history of these female spies and also interviewed relatives of many people involved, which has shaped the script. She has taken a few liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. The film covers a lot of ground and juggles three narrative strands; consequently, it tends to be overloaded with incidents and feels a little episodic and disjointed.

The director is Lydia Dean Pilcher (Radium Girls, etc), an Oscar-nominated producer from a documentary background who has worked with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow. This well-meaning drama is her sophomore feature, but her handling of the material is a little stolid and there is a decided lack of palpable tension to the plight faced by the women. Pilcher avoids unnecessary sentimentality though.

This is a handsomely mounted production. Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner (Midway, etc) gives the material a suitably sombre tone, while the production design from Kim Jennings and the costumes from Vanessa Porter lend authenticity to the material and effectively captures the grim period setting.

The performances of the three leads are very good. Katic brings poise and strength to her role as a strong and determined woman working to prove herself in a male dominated world of espionage. Thomas provides a strong presence as the determined Hall constantly facing danger although she gives the formidable character something of a contemporary edge.

Largely ignored by filmmakers until now, these stories of courage of these women deserves to be told in spectacular fashion. Given the material here A Call To Spy may well have been better suited as a miniseries which would have allowed for more depth and detail to do justice.

★★★

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