“A Call to Spy” contains many of the typical hallmarks of a World War II movie. We follow the heroes through action, espionage, struggle, and sacrifice, all performed on behalf of their country. But these movies usually follow male heroes, whether they be soldiers on the front lines, spies trying to covertly gather intelligence against the enemy, or politicians making maneuvers behind the scenes. “A Call to Spy” brings to life a war story that most of us likely haven’t seen before: that of the women spies in Churchill’s spy agency, called Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.).
Directed by Lydia Dean Pitcher and written by Sarah Megan Thomas (who also produced and stars in the film), “A Call to Spy” narrows its focus to three players in the S.O.E. We first meet Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) toward the beginning of the war in Europe, when the Allies are losing. Known as the S.O.E.’s spymistress, she is tasked with recruiting women to be spies for Britain and conduct sabotage against the Nazi regime, with many believing that women will be less conspicuous than men. Two of her recruits are rather unlikely subjects: Virginia Hall (Thomas), an American woman whose wooden leg has rendered her ineligible for many opportunities, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) an Indian Muslim pacifist working as a wireless operator. After training they are sent to work undercover in dangerous Nazi-occupied France.
Each woman has her struggles throughout the film: Virginia with her disability, Noor grappling with the job she has to do as it relates to her religious beliefs, and Vera—a Romanian Jew—facing growing anti-Semitism in her workplace and the threat of deportation. But what’s wonderful about this film is that it portrays those struggles without pandering to the audience. They aren’t portrayed as either super humans or as constantly butting up against male oppression. They are people who have a job to do, and “A Call to Spy” focuses on them doing that job exceptionally well. Each woman’s backstory unfolds throughout the film alongside their current spy work in a way that makes us truly understand them and root for their success. It helps that each actress delivers a superb performance. Thomas is perhaps the standout, and it feels like the film spends the most time with her. When we first meet Virginia, she is working a desk job in the U.S. Embassy in Britain and has just been turned down for a diplomat position due to her disability; her reaction to the news is to start drafting a letter to President Roosevelt calling out the organization for their discriminatory practices. Her determination to do overcome what others view as a weakness to do whatever it takes shines through in Thomas’s performance. Katic’s Vera has a take-charge attitude that is evident from the first scene she’s in, where it is obvious that she is able to hold her own in an agency filled with mostly men. When she is tasked with recruiting lady spies, one of the men tells her to “make sure they’re pretty,” to which Vera responds, “For you or for the Germans?” Apte brings an outwardly calm yet inwardly fierce presence to Noor. She faces discrimination not just for being a woman but for being Indian, and tells Vera when she first meets with her that she wishes to see an Indian put in high military command in the British Army, to help bridge the gap between the British and the country’s Indian residents.
The film doesn’t waste any time jumping into the story; about 15 minutes in, Vera has finished recruiting her spies and they are in training. Good use is made of the remainder of the film’s runtime and a steady pace and feeling of tension is maintained throughout, even as the story splits up the three protagonists and divides its time between a few different threads. This is a solid solo directorial debut for Pitcher, who previously co-directed “Radium Girls,” another period film about to be released. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the rest of the plot or the spy antics, but it is entertaining and inspiring merely because we are watching ordinary, good people from different backgrounds unite to take a stand against evil. And the characters themselves are so incredible (the film is based on real people) that it is maddening to have not known anything about these women before. Noor became Britain’s first Muslim war heroine. Virginia became the first female spy in the CIA. Vera was awarded for her work as well, but perhaps most importantly, as one of the cards at the end of the film informs us, she took the time after the war to search for and learn the fates of any of her spies who went missing on the job. She did all of that so that they would be remembered. Perhaps the most important thing “A Call to Spy” does is help continue their legacy.
“A Call to Spy” will be released in select theaters and be available to watch on demand on October 2. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.