Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)

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Tasked with recruiting female agents for Winston Churchill's secret army – the SOE or Special Operations Executive – during World War II, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) is told to seek out women who'd lived in France, know the language inside and out, and are passionate about stopping Hitler. The last piece of criteria? “Make sure they're pretty,” she's advised.

Overwhelmed in the fight against the Nazis, both on the overt military front and the covert one where at least half of all spies that SOE leader Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) sends out as part of Britain's “new ministry of ungentlemanly warfare” are caught and killed, it seems that attractive and accomplished women are the country's last resort. Deemed far less conspicuous to sexist Nazis who wouldn't think twice about a “French” beauty walking down the cobblestone streets of Paris, Vera Atkins casts her net out wide to locate two ladies who are even more likely to go undetected than your typical Frenchwoman.

An educated, intelligent American with movie star good looks, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) had dreams of becoming a diplomat. But after a hunting accident left her with gangrene and a leg amputated below the knee, she finds herself denied for the position just as Vera tracks her down. Finding another fascinating recruit in the fastest wireless operator they have on their side – the pacifist, half-American, half-Indian princess Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) – Vera tells the two that she would like them to try out for “a club unlike any other.”

Drawing upon actual files regarding the women's work as spies from SOE, OSS, and CIA records, actress, producer, and screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas (who plays Virginia Hall) does an admirable job of bringing their heroism to life. Fortified by terrific performances across the board, unfortunately, once Noor (played by the film's scene-stealer Apte) lands in France, she isn't given nearly enough of an arc to pay off on just how much “Spy” endeared her to us in the first half of the movie. Worthy of an elegant John Le Carre style miniseries to track the true scope of their work as spies since the film feels rushed and the last act suffers in its attempt to resolve everything at once, “A Call to Spy” is eye-opening all the same. 

A solid – if workmanlike – effort, that perhaps feels more like a made-for-PBS movie than first-time solo filmmaker Lydia Dean Pilcher was hoping it would, “A Call to Spy” cleverly uses the greater Philadelphia area to double for a bulk of the UK and France set period film, as well as Budapest. Shot by Miles Goodall and “Midway” cinematographer Robby Baumgartner and nicely scored by Lillie Rebecca McDonough, it's a handsomely crafted but ultimately average production. 

Nonetheless, a rousing ode to resistance in the face of tyranny that plays especially well in this era of rising authoritarianism in the United States, even though the film doesn't make enough of an impression to stay with you very long after you've seen it, what does remain is the film's message. Thus, while Thomas and Pilcher struggle to cram everything they wanted to convey into its 123 running time, the movie works as an earnest tribute to these unsung, amazingly heroic, and yes, beautiful Baker Street Irregular female spies, that I for one, am now eager to learn much more about.

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