A Call to Spy: Flat dramatics undermine true-life trio’s amazing war stories

A Call to Spy (M, 124mins) Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher ***

World War II rages. France has fallen to the Nazis and Britain now seemingly stands alone against the increasing threat of Hitler’s forces.

Desperate to stop them crossing the Channel, British leader Winston Churchill commissions his new spy agency – the Special Operations Executive – to disrupt the German war machine by any means necessary. Their solution? Recruit and train female spies.

After being dropped behind enemy lines, their role will be to build resistance and conduct sabotage. Spymistress Vera Atkins (Castle’s Stana Katic) is convinced they will make superior operatives because they will be more inconspicuous, but others want her to ensure her charges are “pretty”. “For you? Or the Germans?” she retorts.

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More judicious editing and sharper storytelling might have made A Call to Spy even more fascinating than it is.

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Atkins’ first two choices do little to reduce the controversy surrounding “F-Section”. American Virginia Hall’s (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay) dreams of being a diplomat have been shattered due to her prosthetic leg, while Noor Inayat Khan (The Wedding Guest’s Radhika Apte) was a Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force wireless operator of Indian heritage, who was born in Russia.

Skeptics suggest neither will last a week, while the more hopeful give them about a 50:50 chance of returning safely.

Inspired by this real-life trio who risked their lives for their adopted homeland (the Romanian Atkins’ original surname was Rosenberg), Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher (2018’s Radium Girls) skilfully bring to life their little-known stories with the help of their acting trio.

As a drama though, the pace feels somewhat uneven, at times feeling a bit rushed, at others dragging as they wait for their chance to make contact or carry out the next stage of their mission.

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Sarah Megan Thomas plays Virginia Hall in A Call to Spy.

But, if the overall story lacks a little in its tension-building and execution, there are some delights in the details. Thomas’ highlighting of how the Germans controlled what the French people saw and heard about the war is both fascinating and frighteningly relevant in our current era of tweeting Presidents and fake news, while the hiding of tools in a game of Monopoly to help a prisoner escape is certainly eye-opening.

It’s just a pity the rest of the tale is shrouded in a gloomy aesthetic and feels narratively somewhat flat, when more judicious editing and sharper storytelling might have livened it up.

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