Susan Omand tries to look inconspicuous as she gathers information on A Call to Spy...
At the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate, Churchill orders his new spy agency, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), to recruit and train women as spies. Their daunting mission: conduct sabotage and build a resistance in Nazi occupied Europe.
The SOE’s “spymistress” Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), recruits two unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an ambitious American with a wooden leg, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a Muslim pacifist. Together, these women help to undermine the Nazi regime in France, leaving an unmistakable legacy in their wake.
When I was about 12 or 13, I wanted to be a spy. Specifically, I wanted to be a World War II resistance spy, carrying coded messages, arranging railbridge sabotage and gathering intelligence in occupied France. When our English class at school was asked by the teacher what our favourite films were, mine was not The Muppet Movie or even the newly released Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a 1950s film about the female wartime secret agent Violette Szabo called Carve Her Name With Pride. I was a weird child, obviously. Despite the laughter and bullying that my weirdness subsequently inspired, my fascination with WWII’s female agents continued as I grew up, it’s an area that I’ve read a lot about over the years, and I vividly remember being glued to the 1988-90 TV series Wish Me Luck, which dramatised the work of female agents in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in occupied France.
It was this TV series that the film A Call to Spy most reminded me of while I was watching it; as well as bringing back memories, I got engrossed in a well-written adventure story with credible characters, played out well by a strong ensemble cast. I think it helped that I already knew something of the background to both the SOE department in England and the organisation and expectations of agents “in the field” in France; the different roles agents take on in an agents’ cell, the training, the danger from collaborators and the exhilaration of seeing action and transmitting radio messages. The tension and excitement of the action sequences in A Call to Spy made the film feel a lot shorter than its 2-hour runtime and there were times when I was actually physically holding my breath waiting to see if someone would be found out or if a plan would work. The film also touched upon the darker and bleaker aspects of the life in a way that was fairly well balanced, without wallowing in despondency, feeling overly dramatic or trying to hammer a message home too much. Shit happened and we know that it did. This is not a Hollywoodised glorification of the war, the good guys don’t always win and not everyone gets a happy ending, but neither does the film leave you feeling utterly depressed in the futility of it all.
However, the devil was in the detail and I’m not sure how much it helped the film to know that the main protagonists were based on real people, albeit in a dramatised crossover situation, because I found the story to be robust enough on its own, with characters that I felt were strongly believable and well portrayed by the cast, without need for trivial knowledge of their “real” background. For example, being told in flashback how Virginia came to have her wooden leg felt superfluous to the story being told on-screen, even though it was factual, for me, it was enough to know she had one, and the significance of the lapwing brooch, which was made a big thing of at one point in the film then never mentioned again, was lost on even me. But, in turn, knowing something of the characters beforehand meant that I realised there was so much more that could have been told about them, that this film was only a superficial glide over the surface of fascinating people, but those biopics will hopefully be another film for another time and this was not that. So it was almost "too much but not enough" detail for me. Whether the “based on true stories” prompt for this one would make someone who didn’t know anything of them go and find out more? We can but hope because it is an area of history that deserves to be better known.
Nevertheless, I found A Call to Spy to be a very engaging film and would heartily recommend it as an entertaining way to pass an afternoon if, like me, you like WWII spy stories. For me personally, as well as enjoying the action and adventure, and appreciating the darkness and dread, A Call to Spy was also a look at some of the more mundane and overlooked aspects of the job; the logistical minutiae and red tape that needed to be dealt with at home and abroad, the lack of trust or, rather, the need to trust people you didn’t even know and the utter lack of personal connection that an agent in the field has to maintain in order not to endanger anyone else. Lives really did depend on these guys, mistakes were bound to be made under pressure and the consequences had to be endured.
Signature Entertainment presents WWII espionage thriller A Call to Spy in Cinemas and on Digital HD 23 October 2020
Images - Signature Entertainment