Vera Atkins, Virginia Hall, and Noor Inayat Khan. Three women whose names you’ve probably never heard before and whose lives during the final years of the war are the focus of A Call to Spy. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher (director of 2018’s Radium Girls and whose producing credits include Wes Anderson’s 2007 comedy The Darjeeling Limited) and starring Stana Katic (TV’s Castle), Radhika Apte, and the film’s writer and co-producer Sarah Megan Thomas.
75 years after its end, there is still much to learn about World War II. Much of history focuses on the exploits and achievements of men, and as a result is generally blind to or ignores the often pivotal roles of women. Many women were members of auxiliary units and mass labour shortages resulted in women becoming an integral part of the production of munitions, and in the case of Atkins, Hall and Khan, work in subterfuge and intelligence also became a new reality. As part of Britain’s secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE), often called the “Baker Street Irregulars” and “Churchill’s Secret Army”, Atkins, Hall and Khan were all directly involved with Section F, a spy division whose sole goal was to create a network of Allies and disrupt the Axis controlled areas of France. Pilcher and Thomas’ film, built on years of Thomas’ own in depth research, attempts to introduce their audience to some of the incredible acts of bravery exhibited by women during the war by highlighting these three stories.
The first woman brought into focus is Atkins. Romanian born, Atkins is the secretary to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the head of the SOE’s French division, and a de facto Intelligence Officer and “spymistress” who became responsible for the recruitment and training of the SOE’s female agents. Katic puts on a flashy and elaborate British accent for the role, which is pleasant enough on the ears. Unfortunately, Katic doesn’t get a lot of room or material to work with, but what spunk she brings in response to workplace sexism and antisemitism is enjoyable to watch. Audiences are given plenty of opportunities to sympathise with her struggles as a woman in a male dominated field and admire her “show ‘em who’s boss” attitude, themes that no doubt are still prevalent in this decade.
The film’s main player, likely due to it being built off Thomas’ research, is her role as Virginia Hall. Hall, an American from Baltimore, Maryland, was the SOE’s first female operative to be deployed into France. Posing as a journalist, Hall sets up a base in Vichy and begins to recruit and locate Allies in the city, later also taking part in sabotage and extraction missions. Hall’s efforts of liberation in France becomes the film’s primary driving force. Thomas does a fine job of portraying the heroine, though there are moments where the dialogue feels forced coming out of her mouth. With few acting credits to her name, this is understandable and thankfully it doesn’t detract from the film too much.
Lastly, the film’s third protagonist is Russian-born Indian-Muslim Noor Inayat Khan. As an SOE agent, Khan became Britain’s first female wireless communications officer deployed into France. Portrayed in the film by Bollywood actress Radhika Apte, Khan is an unexplored delight. A pacifist by nature, Khan is quiet, sweet and holds a wonder and determination in her eyes. While adverse to violence, Khan’s intense desire to fight for the cause results in her being deployed, without proper training, to Paris at the height of the Nazi occupation. Apte’s portrayal of Khan is what one would imagine a true embodiment to be, and every moment that she’s not on screen is a loss. While watching someone relay messages in morse code isn’t exciting by any stretch, and this is no doubt the reason her role was so limited, there was likely more about Noor’s upbringing and time in France that could have, and should have, been explored to give the film a little more balance.
A Call to Spy, while attempting to tell one overarching story, really does feel subdivided. There’s a lot of ground to cover in this film, and it truly does its best, but even in the moments when these women intersect, there’s a disjointed-ness that can’t quite be shaken off. Where A Call to Spy does benefit is from Thomas’ intense research. Depictions of the military training, extraction and research missions are meticulous and give the film a feeling of authenticity that some wartime epics can often lack. Pilcher and Thomas have made no efforts to churn out a broad-scale retelling of some great battle or secret mission, rather they’ve gone to great pains to base their film in a sense of reality. By focusing their film on the sexist overtones of history and unsung efforts of the women who fought for freedom, A Call to Spy unfolds in a slow and exact manner to tell a new, broader story that, in spite of its shortcomings, is still interesting to know.