A Call to Spy

 

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A true-life story from World War II in which women are central.

 
Call to Spy, A  

It's very rare for a film to be highly evocative of a past era of cinema but also to be of the moment. Nevertheless, that is how it is with A Call to Spy. That the movie, directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, should be so female-orientated (it would score highly under the Bechdel test) is in keeping with contemporary concerns over the need for more films that look at the world from a female perspective. Sarah Morgan Thomas pulls off a triple here since, in addition to being the star, she is also the writer and the producer. Furthermore, the story that she has chosen to tell is centred on three women: the American Virginia Hall (Thomas's own role), the Romanian-born Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) who was Jewish and the Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). These three are not fictional figures but real people connected by the fact that they served in the 'F' section of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.

 

The head of that section was Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) and Vera Atkins worked alongside him in finding suitable agents to be sent into France. Virginia Hall, despite having a wooden leg consequent on an accident in the hunting field, was the first woman dispatched and Noor Inayat Khan who followed was the first one whose work was that of a wireless operator. A Call to Spy is an appropriate tribute to their contributions during the war with Germany and one senses that the screenplay is even anxious to present them as being stronger than the men around them (there may well be some truth in this but as portrayed here the men in the SOE are often made to appear weak by comparison and for that matter some of the dialogue belongs more to the present-day than to the 1940s).

 

Those with an awareness of British cinema of the 1950s will find that, despite these touches, A Call to Spy is evocative of films of that decade which also took as their key figure heroic women who worked in France for the SOE. The one best remembered today is 1958's Carve Her Name with Pride but I recall the critic Paul Dehn, who had inside knowledge on the subject, pointing out how fictional some of the details in that work are. No less successful on its release was Odette (1950) which, starring Anna Neagle, paid tribute to Odette Sansom and, if that too may have been free with some of the factual details, it had the extra authenticity of including in the cast Maurice Buckmaster playing himself.

 

Although a shade on the long side (it runs to just over two hours), A Call to Spy is competently made and all three principal actresses do well. The film follows up on their selection and training by accompanying the two sent into France amidst the danger and the fear of being found and tortured by the Germans. Meanwhile, Vera Atkins is not forgotten since the film frequently cuts back from Lyon and from Paris to return to England (Vera's struggle against anti-Semitism while seeking British citizenship provides an extra plot thread). Once again the true story is embroidered in certain aspects. Apparently there was no close connection between Virginia and Noor but linking them in the film's first half does help to make the tales of the three women cohere in these early stages. Later on with each of them in a different location the movie does become decidedly more bitty (for example Virginia Hall is made the prime focus yet the climax switches to Noor). But, if the film can be faulted at times, it is even so a decent piece and one helped by the editing of Paul Tothill. I found it good rather than memorable, but my rating for it may be a shade harsh nevertheless.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Lola Pashalinski, Joe Doyle, Mathilde Ollivier, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson.

 

Dir Lydia Dean Pilcher, Pro Sarah Megan Thomas, Screenplay Sarah Megan Thomas, Ph Robby Baumgartner, and Miles Goodall, Pro Des Kim Jennings, Ed Paul Tothill, Music Lillie Rebecca McDonough, Costumes Vanessa Porter.

 

SMT Pictures-Signature Entertainment.
124 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 23 October 2020. Available in cinemas and on Digital HD. Cert. 12A.