Synopsis: In the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate, Churchill orders his new spy agency to recruit and train women as spies. Their daunting mission: conduct sabotage and build a resistance.
Stars: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache
Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: As a critic, the absolute worst feeling is coming across some film that you desperately wanted to like and find that it just doesn’t like you back. You’ve read about it and think it sounds like a perfect subject to base a movie off of and wonder why it hasn’t been told before, or if it had why you hadn’t seen it yet. Then you see it’s a largely female production behind the scenes as well and it only makes you more convinced you’re on the right track and you’re bound to be in for a project done right. Only then you get that opportunity to see the film and wonder where things went wrong and why you didn’t warm to it like you thought you would, why it felt so phony, and why you now have to write the next sentence. I did not like A Call to Spy.
Yes, it’s unfortunate to admit it but I was severely disappointed in the new WWII historical drama that revolves around the recruitment of females to be sent behind enemy lines as spies and radio transmitters, risking their lives just as much as their male counterparts. We’ve been treated to countless stories of men doing the same thing and even ones that spied and transmitted without ever having to leave the UK, but A Call to Spy suggested it was going to provide more of the backstory about this program and its participants. The trouble is that it’s such a thinly written piece with a narrow focus, it doesn’t allow for a broader view of the initiative beyond it’s limited scope. It’s general topic may be interesting but the movie is a fairly solid snoozefest.
Recognizing that women were less likely to be perceived as a threat or wouldn’t be thought to have the capacity to spy for their country by the Nazis, Churchill instructed his recently formed spy agency to move forward with a proposal raised by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, Quantum of Solace) that would allow women the opportunity to receive formal training. If they were cleared and a mission presented itself, they would be prepared to go where the need was. This is how the agency came to recruit Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) a quiet but brilliant radio operative and Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) an American stationed in Britain continually denied her request to be a diplomat on account of her wooden leg. Both are unlikely choices…which, in a way, makes them perfect choices.
Director Lydia Dean Pilcher stages early scenes of training in a strangely haphazard way, which begins a pattern of confusion over location and timeline that continues through the remainder of the film. It’s never truly clear where or when the action is taking place because the Pilcher switches often between Noor and Virginia in their separate missions and Vera back home keeping an eye on the program and trying to plan for her own survival should the Nazis get closer. The main men in the film, Linus Roache (Non-Stop) as Vera’s superior and Rossif Sutherland (Possessor Uncut) as a contact Virginia befriends are around for emotional sounding boards, no more, no less.
What is meant to elicit suspense barely raises the pulse and in these espionage films there should be a little tension here and there. Though I was paying attention to the film and following along with the women on their assignments, it got muddy to who was aligned with whom and where everyone was heading — making moments meant to be shocking just confusing. Perhaps that’s due to the leading performance of Thomas. Serving also as the writer, Thomas has given the role some meat that is likely meant to be a stretch but doesn’t seem to sit well on her. I didn’t buy her transformation into the covert emissary she becomes and it’s from that weak point other lacking areas are exposed. The dialogue is trite, the scenes staged without much precision, and, again, the editing doesn’t help keep the narrative in check.
This one bummed me out. I had high hopes for it and wanted to like it far more than I did. I’m a sucker for movies set at this point in history and anything to do with untold stories of ordinary people called in to do extraordinary things is grand in my book. It just hit none of the marks for me that I expected. On the other hand, I can’t stress enough how vital the story being told by all involved is and on that basis, I would absolutely recommend the film as a jumping off place for viewers wanting to know more about this part of history. As a film, though, A Call to Spy is one I wouldn’t venture to answer a second time.