In 2016, Sarah Megan Thomas produced and starred in Equity, a financial thriller that showed the cutthroat world of Wall Street from a financial perspective. I remember speaking with her back then about it, and the need for more films that put women forward in genres dominated by the male point of view. And now Thomas is back and following through on that with A Call to Spy, a WWII drama which she wrote and stars in, telling the little-known story of female spies in Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret army engaged in “ungentlemanly warfare” against Hitler.
While based in fact, A Call to Spy has a lot of ground to cover, and the SOE was in existence for a lot of years with dozens of women in its ranks. So Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher, focus the story three of the organization’s most fascinating subjects, whether their paths actually crossed or not. I don’t get bent out of shape about perfect historical accuracy when it comes to an undertold story like this. What matters is whether the film does a good enough job to warrant further interest in the subject matter, which A Call to Spy does.
Centering on American agent Virginia Hall (Thomas), British Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), and Romanian Jew Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the film centers on the women and their various clandestine activities to combat the Nazis, who are preparing to cross the English Channel in spring 1941. In desperate need for more human intel, Winston Churchill facilitates the creation of the SOE and tasks Atkins with recruiting women into the fold, due to them being largely inconspicuous. “Make sure they’re pretty”, one high-ranking official says.
That obviously sexist remark is just one of the many hurdles these women will have to overcome, as they all face various forms of prejudice in the performance of their duties. Hall, an American working as part of the typing pool, is overly qualified to be a diplomat but faces rejection due to the loss of her left leg in a hunting accident. Noor, one of the Air Force’s best wireless operators, is frowned upon for her pacifist leanings. Meanwhile, Atkins faces mistrust due to her being an immigrant, despite years of loyal service to the British government.
These details foster a film that lacks the sheer tension we expect from an espionage thriller. The reason is so few of the central characters are directly involved in the action, and Thomas’ screenplay steers most of the attention to the one she plays, even though she is the least intriguing of the three. Hall is in charge of organizing rebel networks, using her communicative skills to draw loyal followers to the cause. While this does lead to the occasional bombing, and a few tight run-ins with Nazis on the hunt for her, they lack the suspense of Noor’s narrative. Already dealing with questions of identity, Noor finds herself alone in enemy territory, moving from place to place and relying on the honesty of others to survive. In capturing Noor’s courage, faith, and fear while hiding in the shadows, Apte will be a revelation to American audiences who have never seen her work before. The film would almost be better served if Atkins’ oversized part was reduced in favor of Noor. It’s not a comment on Katic, who is excellent, just that Atkins is so disconnected from the others that she might be better served in a movie all to herself.
Pilcher isn’t a filmmaker known for a lot of bells and whistles, and her directorial hand here is efficient, if perhaps too unremarkable for three such remarkable women. A Call to Spy is a welcome tribute to the female spies who put their lives on the line to fight for the cause of liberty (the movie’s original title was Liberté), and as expected with tales of war, it leaves on a bittersweet note. For most, this will be an introduction to the female spies of the SOE, but it hopefully won’t be the last we see of their many stories on the big screen.