Producer: Sarah Megan Thomas Director: Lydia Dean Pitcher Screenplay: Sarah Megan Thomas Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Ollivier, Matt Salinger, Joe Doyle, Marceline Hugo, Lola Pashalinksi and Cynthia Mace Distributor: IFC Films
This film about women who worked as behind-enemy-lines spies for the British government in the early years of World War II was obviously a labor of love for Sarah Megan Thomas, who researched the topic over several years, wrote the script, and plays Virginia Hall, the expatriate American who became one of the most successful agents in Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) in 1941-42 and later returned to the continent working with the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in 1944-45.
Hall’s story is juxtaposed with those of two others. One is Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the loyal assistant to Col. Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache), the former car executive now heading the France desk of the SOE. Romanian born, she’d emigrated to Britain years earlier, but her application for citizenship papers has been declined repeatedly, despite Buckmaster’s support, implicitly because she is Jewish.
Tasked by the Churchill government to find women to serve as assets on the Nazi-controlled continent, Atkins argues not only for accepting an application from Hall, who has been trying fruitlessly to secure an American diplomatic post, despite the fact that she limps as a result of wearing a prosthetic leg as the result of a hunting accident, but recruiting Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a tiny, quiet Muslim of Indian heritage who has experience in radio broadcasting, desperately needed among agents in the field. Both pass their physical training and are sent to France.
Thomas’ screenplay juggles the three women’s stories, moving from one to another, though the transitions often seem like lurches (the fault lies mainly with the writing and direction, though Paul Tothill’s rather ponderous editing doesn’t help). Noor’s is the most personally tragic. She is eventually betrayed while taking refuge with a friend (Mathilde Ollivier), tortured by the Gestapo for information, and taken to a concentration camp, where the worst happens.
Vera, by comparison, proves an unlikely survivor; despite many close shaves, she eventually makes a trek across the snowy Pyrenees to reach Spain—and finally Britain—despite her wooden leg. And her escape is achieved under the most difficult circumstances, since she’s been tasked to work in Lyon, where the notorious Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann) is determined to capture her—and in the process succeeds in taking down most of the local underground, including the doctor (Rossif Sutherland) to whom she has been closest. (Whether they were actually betrayed in the fashion depicted here is a matter that must be left to historians of the period; the person fingered as culpable, a priest feigning anti-Nazi sentiments, played by Joe Doyle, seems to be a fictitious character.)
The story told by “A Call to Spy” is one of undoubted courage, and its feminist slant is a welcome corrective to the usual macho treatment of espionage thrillers; in Atkins’ case it also hones in on the sort of bigotry that is still among us. And if it doesn’t manage to integrate all of its concerns as skillfully as it might, overall it’s effective, though in a conventional way.
As directed prosaically but professionally by Lydia Dean Pilcher, it resembles nothing more than an excellent “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation. It boasts an elegant production design by Kim Jennings and expert set decoration (Alexander Linde) and costume design (Vanessa Porter), with fine period detail; and the cinematography by Robby Baumgartner is quite lovely (the shoot included locations in Budapest and Philadelphia). And Lillie Rebecca McDonough’s score is supportive without becoming intrusive.
The acting is solid across the board as well, though it’s Thomas and Apte who stand out. They have the juiciest roles in any case, but both seize on the opportunities—the one on her character’s intensity and determination, the other on hers softness and vulnerability—to dominate their scenes. Katic does the stiff-upper-lift routine well until she breaks down over her own problems, and Roache offers his usual reliable work, but both figures wind up not being able to compete with those actually in imminent danger. The supporting cast is fine across the board, with Sutherland’s mixture of conviction and fear, with an added dose of longing for Hill, especially touching.
“A Call to Spy”—a title that inevitably reminds one a bit ironically of “A Call to Arms”–could be more suspenseful and wrenching, but though it takes few risks, it winds up a good account of a little-known but significant episode in World War II intelligence history, one with a pointedly feminist slant.