A Call to Spy: a Feminist WWII Spy Film that has a Lot More to Tell than is Shown (Review)
A Call to Spy depicts the stories of brave WWII spymistresses, whose heroic actions are too many to be joined in a single film which doesn’t do them justice.
A Call to Spy premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2019, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, as Liberté: A Call to Spy. This is not coincidentally, as the film makes a clear feminist statement for the liberation of women in the arts. With a mostly female cast and producing team, A Call to Spy certainly focuses on the skills and capabilities in women, in whatever position they might be. The film details the lives of three brave and courageous women who made the admirable choice to become part of a spy-team and place themselves right in the heart of the dark and grim world of Occupied France in the 1940s. Over the course of 118 minutes, we are taken along the high and low points of their four-year deployment from their recruitment to their decommission. You are certainly in for a ride.
One thing that A Call to Spy makes very clear is that all these women had aspirations and dreams in life, to become the first diplomat with a wooden leg (Virginia Hall – Sarah Megan Thomas, Equity), to be a Muslim pacifist children’s book writer (Noor Inayat Khan – Radhika Atpe, The Wedding Guest), to gain the British identity (and the respect of the British) as a Jewish-Romanian in an anti-Semitic Britain (Vera Atkins – Stana Katic, Castle, The Possession of Hannah Grace). The war changed all that, but for the better. These women are now remembered as the spymistresses who helped undermine the Nazi regime in France and thereby changed the course of history. It is not unsurprising that a film showing the magnitude of female courage has won awards from the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Whistlers Film Festival and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
Even though it is inspired by incredible true stories, A Call to Spy seems to be disconnected from the truth. For starters, Noor Inayat Khan and Virginia Hall operated during different times in France, it remains the question whether their paths may have crossed, or not. Though it links the three storylines together, it is these historical (in)accuracies that take away a bit of the reality aspect of the film. It is a shame that the film is indeed highly historically accurate, just not in a way that can be perceived for the easy watcher. If you, like me, immediately Wikipedia these various women, there are a lot of seemingly disjointed conversations and actions between the characters that suddenly click. For example, when an office clerk intercepts Noor’s transmission and is suspicious of the change in “fist”, or style of tapping the keys. This is a subtle reference to Noor’s heavy way of typing, earning her the reputation of always sneaking in a couple of errors. Instead of focusing on this subtle detail of Noor’s identity, the scene is used to explore the superiors’ distrust of Vera Atkins, when she believes the office clerk. Thus, missing an opportunity to individualize their stories and personalities.
In 118 minutes, there is frankly not enough room to fully explore the lives of three extraordinary heroines, leaving a muddled story arch that instead of showing how these women were extraordinary in their own rights, homogenises them into a singular role of “spymistress”. On top of that, there is so incredibly much action going around that their character development is severely lacking – result: flat characters to who we feel no emotional connection to really empathise with their struggle in the second half of the film. This is not only due to the lack of discussion of inner thoughts and emotions on screen, but also to the shunning of the showing of emotions in the cinematography. Perhaps it was intended to remove the ‘emotional woman’ stigma in film, it is however disconcerting to watch someone perform heroic actions and experience none of their personal inner fears and worries, when following them as close-up as in a biographical film. The focus is so split that the sense of danger and heroicness is not as obvious as they want us to believe. Out of the three women, only Vera Atkins’s (Stana Katic) storyline manages to convey the despair and frustration she must have felt, through Stana’s piercing gazes and heartfelt acting while battling blatant sexism in 1940s London.
The distribution of action in A Call to Spy is also disproportionately unbalanced. Where Virginia Hall performs heroic deeds here and there (without a proper context or purpose), Noor and Vera’s storylines can’t compete in terms of dramatic space, which also does not do the heroic deeds that they performed justice. This results in the lack of tension you might expect from an espionage thriller. Combined with very, very, cliché Hollywood style spy-thriller actions, and the trailer-like pacing of the majority of the film (which focuses for a large chunk on Virginia Hall’s action-packed sequences) the film does not feel very realistic or believable. It gives the impression more effort was put in convincing audiences how much this story matters rather than telling it. Knowing that Sarah Megan Thomas (Virginia Hall) wrote and produced A Call to Spy, it is unsurprising how much camera-time was given to Virginia Hall’s storyline, though it is a missed opportunity for director Lydia Dean Pilcher (Cutie & The Boxer, Radium Girls) to not explore Noor’s and Vera’s storylines in more detail, as they deal with interesting situations of service and identity.
For a mostly female production, A Call to Spy had all the odds in their favour to be a smashing hit. If you watch it as a beautifully shot period drama that follows mostly the lives of early 20th century feminists, it is a really nice film to watch. If you watch it with a keen interest in the individual lives of Vera Atkins, Noor Inayat Khan and Virginia Hall, you will most certainly enjoy the amount of detailing and references to their personal lives. However, if you watch it with zero to none background in these women and really want to learn more about these heroines of the Second World War, A Call to Spy most likely is not the film for you. All in all, I did enjoy watching the film and will most likely watch it again, if I’m in the mood for a good (slightly historic) period drama. After all, who doesn’t like a good feminist “ungentlemanly warfare”?
WATCH A CALL TO SPY:
A Call to Spy was released in UK Cinemas and on Digital HD on 23 October, and on DVD on 2 November, 2020. The film is now available to watch worldwide on digital and on demand.