In August of 1941 the German occupation of Europe was well underway. Northern France was next to fall leaving Great Britain alone and vulnerable. With Hitler poised to cross the English Channel a desperate Winston Churchill orders a section of his Special Operations Executive (SOE) to begin recruiting and training women as spies. Their goal would be to infiltrate and disrupt the occupying German forces in France while building a clandestine network of resistance.
This is the compelling premise of “A Call to Spy”, a mature character-driven historical drama that examines yet another shamefully untold true story from World War II. It may be a tad too ambitious when it comes to scope, but for a small budget indie it’s a remarkable accomplishment. More importantly the film never loses sight of its characters, their individual plights, and their dedication to service. Not only are their stories informative and inspirational, but they’re rich with lessons still relevant today. Better yet this is a female led movie that shines on both sides of the camera. Take note Hollywood.
The film features an Oscar-nominated director in Lydia Dean Pilcher who ably covers a lot of ground while never allowing the dialogue-heavy story to bog down. That’s made easier by Sarah Megan Thomas who is the heart of the film both on screen and behind its production. Thomas stars, produces and writes the screenplay with passion, motivation and empathy. Extensive research and family interviews led her to make something far more intimate and illuminating than your typical genre period piece.
The story focuses on three woman, each with their own personal obstacles to overcome but joined in their determination and courage. The first is Vera Atkins (brilliantly portrayed by Stana Katic), Romanian by birth and positioned as the secretary to SOE section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache). In reality Vera was his head of intelligence, but due to constantly being declined British citizenship she was restricted from officially holding an officer’s position. Despite often being the smartest person in the room, Vera frequently comes face-or-face with the military’s longstanding patriarchy. And even Buckmaster’s unwavering trust can’t protect her from some of the quieter prejudices that surface later in the film.
Vera is tasked with finding and vetting their initial batch of female recruits. “Women would be more inconspicuous.” They would be tested, trained and then sent off “to build resistance and set France ablaze“. Vera in instantly drawn to Virginia Hall (played by Thomas), an American eager to serve as a diplomat but repeatedly denied by her country because she’s a woman and due to her “condition”. She has a wooden leg which she affectionately calls Cuthbert, the result of a tragic hunting accident years prior. Intelligent and committed, Virginia instantly shows grit and leadership, both invaluable assets in the “ungentlemanly warfare” she would be facing.
Next is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a gentle, unassuming Indian pacifist and top-notch wireless operator. She’s immediately met with skepticism by many of the men who view her small stature and kind spirit as weaknesses. But Noor earns the confidence of Vera and Buckmaster and begins training for fieldwork. Meanwhile Virginia is sent to Lyon to establish a secret hub for the growing resistance. Once there we follow her as she makes connections and works to win the trust of the already embedded operatives. With England desperate for information and the German occupation intensifying, Noor soon joins Virginia despite not finishing her training.
Thomas’ script nimbly moves back-and-forth between the stories of the three women. Each story thread is neatly connected to the others while still feeling very personal to the individual characters. For example Virginia quickly develops into a keen resistance leader, managing the many lives hinging on her decisions and making tough calls when need be. But her disability is a very real part of her story. Thomas doesn’t gloss over it, acutely showing it as both a strength and a struggle. She shows the same sensibility for Noor, a brave young woman out of her element, moving from place to place while narrowly avoiding capture. Same for Vera who follows her recruits from back home, parsing through messages and supporting their efforts while feeling the breath of sexist and anti-Semitic sentiment.
“A Call to Spy” is exactly the movie I hoped for. An eye-opening true story of uncommon valor, told through capable direction, a smart affecting script, and three central performances that vividly portray these heroes. And their heroism wasn’t just reserved for the arena of war. Whether in the trenches or the war room, these woman fought uphill showing their true mettle in the face of hardship. The film also works as a thoughtful World War II history piece with an immersive setting and ample reminders of what was at stake and the sacrifices made. “A Call to Spy” opens October 2nd in select theaters and on VOD.