A CALL TO SPY

★★★

THE UNKNOWN STORIES OF REAL-LIFE HEROES

BOXING DAY REVIEW
By Joel Kalkopf
25th December 2020

Noor Inayat Khan was a British Indian woman who became the first female wireless spy to enter into Nazi-occupied France. Virginia Hall was known as "The Limping Lady", one of the most organised and successful spies for Britain during World War II, and eventually became the first female CIA agent. Vera Atkins was a Romanian-born Jewish woman who was part of the team that helped break the enigma code, and was in charge of selecting the female spies who would be sent into enemy territory. Together, these hidden figures of the spy world formed part of Winston Churchill's "Baker Street Irregulars" - a Special Operations Executive (SEO) whose purpose was espionage, resistance and sabotage.

It's probable that you've never heard of these women before, and about 75 years after their efforts helped change the course of the war, they're getting their recognition on the big screen in Lydia Dean Pilcher's ('Radium Girls') 'A Call to Spy'. Produced, written and starring Sarah Megan Thomas ('Backwards'), this biopic is inspired by the incredible true stories of these women, and whilst it sometimes struggles to balance all the deserving stories at once, there is no denying that these tales deserve to be told - and, more importantly, need to be heard.

It is the beginning of World War II, and Churchill is worried that Britain doesn't have enough information coming out of France. He enlists the aid of his new spy agency, the SEO, to smuggle members into France and build resistance while reporting back on activities. Espionage seems obvious today, but it's important to remember that at the time it had never been done before, and certainly not on this scale. Key to going undercover would be the spies' lack of suspicion, and who better to infiltrate undetected than everyday women? Individually headhunted by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, TV's 'The Castle') - whose real-life exploits would go on to inspire James Bond's Moneypenny - this is a film centred on the birth, and sacrifice, of spy networks.

'A CALL TO SPY' TRAILER

Virginia (Thomas) is a one-legged American whose tenacity and bravery help set up the French network of intelligence, and she is joined by Noor (Radhika Apte), who is widely considered the best wireless the country has to offer. Ultimately, these women are complete amateurs and with only six weeks of training prior to their mission, so it's no wonder they were given a mere 50 per cent chance of returning home.

Like all good spy films, the tension and drama stem from the uncertainty of their everyday lives. These are ordinary people who have sacrificed everything to help the war effort, and that is the driving force behind the film. It is not hard to learn from the parallels in today's climate that for every and any negative or horrific event, there are good people never too far away, always looking to help. Armed with little more than perseverance and a moral compass, what these incredible women were able to achieve is a lesson for all.

In writing the screenplay, Thomas was considerate of how this film can harness the power of education, and in doing so, along with Pilcher, manages to mould a young-adult friendly lens into an otherwise horrific time. Thomas wanted younger generations to watch this film and learn from it - and there is no denying she succeeds in crafting the lessons. 'A Call to Spy' does a wonderful job - if not a mature one - in portraying discrimination in all shapes and sizes, and does it all without the visceral bloodshed one would expect from this subject. Audiences witness the hurdles of a disability, the rise in antisemitism, xenophobia, sexism, multiculturalism and more. There are so many lessons to be learned here, and using these women's stories as a window to education is a fantastic choice. There is just enough here to encourage further questions, and that must be applauded.

Armed with little more than perseverance and a moral compass, what these incredible women were able to achieve is a lesson for all.

That's not to say 'A Call to Spy' is only for a younger generation. I found myself in a rabbit hole of research when approaching the review for this film. What started off as Googling the film's production notes ended in watching short documentaries on Noor and Virginia, reading all about Klaus the Butcher of Lyon, and even treading on the awful - and widely unknown - Vichy regime of France. These stories, especially those of Virginia and Noor, are truly remarkable, and could easily have warranted biopics in their own right.

That is, unfortunately, one of the forces working against this film. It's a tough act to balance these amazing stories with the attention they all deserve. In real life, Noor has some incredible prison escapes that aren't mentioned, and Virginia's unbelievable journey across the Alps on one leg barely gets any screen time. What was important for Thomas was not the facts of the story, but their arcs. And still, there are elements of this film that are underwhelming. Ultimately, this is an indie film on an indie budget, which often proves too much of a limitation in trying to convey a story of this scale. It sometimes feels like a TV movie - and not in the fun Hallmark Christmas way. There are times when the script feels tight and works in tandem with the rhythm of the film, and there are other times when the gravity of the situations are let down by mediocre dialogue or scenes that feel out of place. Luckily, through it all, the sheer worth of the story holds it all together, helping 'A Call to Spy' reach a passable mark.

One of the limitations of a large scope war film is that you lose the human story that attracts audiences to the event. When something like a war - huge in scope by nature - is depicted on-screen (and likewise in education), you need a human focus to even begin to comprehend the magnitude of the real-world horror. Thomas does that here with the exceptional real-life stories of these women. It falls into the traps that too many biopics suffer, but with a great ensemble cast including Katic, Linus Roache ('Mandy') and Apte's first foray into American cinema, there is space for this film to exist and prosper. At the very least, these real-life heroic women deserve your attention.

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