A Call to Spy
Director – Lydia Dean Pilcher
Cast – Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache
Dramatically inert and oddly unaffecting, A Call to Spy does a disservice to the incredible women that it wants to honour, and despite brimming with plot, feels strangely empty. It’s always difficult to write about films as bland as this, but the problems are invariably easy to identify.
Here, they arise mostly out of a confused screenplay, and an utter lack of resources to realise it. A Call to Spy, available on Amazon Prime Video in India, tells the story of three women — each of whom played a vital role in the Allied resistance against the Nazis during World War 2 — but has no idea whom to focus its attention on. And by attempting (and failing) to do all three of them equal justice, the film ends up short-changing them all.
Watch the trailer for A Call to Spy here
Stana Katic plays British ‘spymistress’ Vera Atkins, who is tasked with recruiting new agents to send into France. And so she picks a cripple and a pacifist, with the hope that their unassuming appearances would help protect their cover.
Sarah Megan Thomas, in addition to playing the film’s meatiest role — the wooden-legged go-getter Virginia Hall — is also credited as the film’s writer and producer. A Call to Spy can, therefore, be described as a ‘vanity project’ — a term with distinctly negative connotations, often interchangeable with the infinitely more positive ‘passion project’. But deciding which to use is a matter of personal taste.
‘Passionate’ wouldn’t be the first word I’d use to describe this movie; it wouldn’t even be the 10th. A Call to Spy has a distinct ‘made for television’ quality, which could either be because director Lydia Dean Pilcher had to cut corners, or because, besides a fuzzy feminist spirit, the movie has little personality.
Since the money’s tight, so are the shots. This robs the picture of scale, and the environments of all atmosphere. It feels like it was filmed on a couple of soundstages, with the location work restricted to medium shots and close-ups, thereby relieving the movie of the pressure to fill the frame with period-accurate details, such as cars and storefronts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the production stitched up only a dozen or so Nazi uniforms, which the extras had to exchange between them on the day.
Joining Virginia in her mission is Noor Inayat Khan, played by Radhika Apte. Noor is described as the daughter of an American woman and an Indian man, a British citizen who was born in Russia but grew up in France. If anything, this gives Apte an excuse to utilise her culturally vague real-life accent in the movie as well.
In theory, the film could’ve chosen any of these three women as its sole protagonist and there would have been enough material (and perhaps an even greater amount left over) to sustain the story. Noor’s Gandhian values, her identity as an outsider, and the tragic nature of her life would have made for a particularly solid biopic. But by sprinting between the characters and merely touching upon their noble contributions to the war effort, A Call to Spy runs out of breath, and ends up having all the emotional heft of a Wikipedia entry.
A large reason for this is Thomas’ incredibly dry script, which is completely devoid of any real tension. Characters are prone to making declarations such as, “We have to get this right!” And, “What we do here changes the course of the future!” But the clunkiest exchange involves Vera coming up with a seemingly spontaneous code name for one of the operatives, and relaying it to her boss. “Philomena,” she says, “It means ‘strength’.” Subtle.
At no point do you fear for these women — they are, after all, in enemy territory — and at no point do you get a sense of what is at stake. This is unfortunate, because, a lot of the time, they are in very real danger of being caught, and the stakes, as we know, were rather astronomical.
None of these problems would have mattered had A Call to Spy been a good film, but it isn’t a good film precisely because of them. These women deserved better, and so do you.