James Jay Edwards reviews A Call to Spy, an historical drama film by director Lydia Dean Pilcher and written/produced/starring Sarah Megan Thomas. (IFC Films)
Set in the middle of World War II, A Call to Spy finds France under German occupation and that much closer to England. So, Winston Churchill decides to put together a spy network made up of normal people who will be implanted in France to sabotage the Germans and encourage the French to form a resistance. An agent named Vera Atkins (Stana Katic from Castle) is tasked with finding women for the mission, and among her recruits is an ambitious American with a wooden leg named Virginia Hall (Equity’s Sarah Megan Thomas) and a pacifist Muslim radio transmission coder named Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte from The Wedding Guest). Once behind enemy lines, the women carry out their assignments … and find themselves in hot water.
Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the co-leads of A Call to Spy, also served as screenwriter and producer on the project. For her script, Thomas culled through the real-life stories of Atkins, Hall, and Khan, crafting a story that is not only anxious and suspenseful, but packed with realism. It’s a war movie, but a subtle one, light on explosions and gunfire, but heavy on the intrigue and subversion. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher, herself no stranger to the “girl power” motif from her last film Radium Girls, injects her own take on conflict into the movie, and while A Call to Spy isn’t exactly soft and sensitive, it’s not a shoot-’em-up either.
(A Call to Spy, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)
Although A Call to Spy is an obvious spy thriller, it’s light on actual thrills. There’s plenty of tension, but it manifests itself in backstabbing and betrayal more than it does in mayhem and malfeasance. There’s a sense of paranoia that exists throughout the entire film. Virginia and Noor (or, as they are known by their codenames, Bridget and Madelaine) seem to always be on the verge of getting caught, and there are constant visual reminders of what will happen to them if they are, like a pile of dead bodies on the side of the road here or a corpse hanging in a courtyard there. Even their contacts and allies seem suspect, so the ladies really have no one that they can truly trust. They’re on their own. Typical spy stuff.
In its attempt to put the full story of these three heroic ladies out there, A Call to Spy does run a bit long. It’s never boring, but at a bit over two hours, it does feel padded. Some scenes seem overly wordy and expositional, and while they may give the viewer pertinent information about what’s going on, that information could be delivered more economically, or better yet, left for the audience to figure out on its own. There’s an extremely tight and solid 90-minute movie somewhere within A Call to Spy.
(A Call to Spy, IFC Films)
But there are also scenes of incredible tension that make up for the talky ones. For example, one scene has Noor’s train being stopped by the Gestapo, the passengers all being offboarded and dogs brought in to sniff their luggage for contraband. Noor’s radio equipment is in her suitcase. And the dogs are getting closer and closer to it. These are the moments that make A Call to Spy. Not the spoon-fed exposition, and not the mischievous sabotage. It’s the show-’em-the-bomb suspense.
For a movie set 80 years ago, A Call to Spy has a message for these modern times. Of course, even that is spelled out to the audience in one line while Virginia is setting up her French resistance network, “Doing nothing is what the Germans are counting on. Resist!” Solid advice for today’s American political climate as well.