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A call to spy

Peter W Sheehan  |  10 December 2020

A CALL TO SPY. Starring: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, and Radhika Apte. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 124 min.

This British historical drama borrows its title from 'A Call to Arms', a well-known phrase, that signifies a call to take action when threatened. It tells the factual story of three courageous women who worked as British spies during World War II. The film is inspired by events surrounding British agent, Virginia Hall. The movie won awards at different international film festivals, and all three women, who the movie depicts, have since been honoured for their courage in action.

At the start of WWII, the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, ordered a new spy agency, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – a secret British intelligence organisation – to train women as spies for Britain. At the time, the war effort in Europe was not going well for Churchill, and the 'spy mistress' of Churchill’s new agency, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), recruited two distinctly different candidates: American, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), who had a wooden leg, and a Muslim Indian pacifist, Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). They aroused controversy because of who they were, but they became key figures in the British espionage effort.

After years of research on early historical records, Sarah Megan Thomas, wrote the film’s screenplay and produced the movie, after also interviewing the relatives of the women who involved.

The SOE was created in 1941 after France fell to the Nazis, and the agency decided to use 'lady spies' to communicate reliable data on what was happening across the Channel. It acted on the assumption that women could move around more freely, and with less resistance, than men in occupied territories. Romanian Jewish immigrant, Vera Atkins, was in charge of efforts to recruit women from either the civilian or military life, but they had to be fluent in French. She arranged for Virginia and Noor to be dropped into France with cyanide pills in their pocket. Help was visibly absent to protect them and others, and both used their extraordinary skills to get agents out of France, and into it, when ordered to do so.

This is an emotionally moving film about the adventures of three unsung heroines who did what they could to defeat the Nazi regime at a critical time in the war effort. The film roams back and forth across the English Channel, but communicates uplifting stories of how the women risked their lives, and the difficulties they faced with poor home support – which included the threat of personal betrayal. In Europe, both Virginia and Noor were targeted by the enemy. The Gestapo tried desperately to track Virginia down, and both were hounded. Noor was tortured and died in capture, and the film starts with a highly unusual (physically assaultive) interrogation of Virginia.

This is an inspirational thriller, with real-life historical significance. It conveys stories of how three women, who acted as spies in WWII, did so for their country. Noor Khan gave her life, rather than her secrets, to the Nazis; she was at special risk, because she worked as a wireless operator, and radio transmissions could be traced. The film accentuates the women’s courage, and focuses on a range of action exploits which impressively hold their tension.

The film is well researched, tightly scripted, and edited. The acting of all three women is extremely convincing. Additional directorial strength comes from the way the film shows how cultural sexism was delivered to women in the war effort. When detected, any contributions women made to ending WWII were normally placed aside; at the time of the events that this film depicts, heroism was reserved for men.

This is not a male-hero movie in any way. The film is acted, directed, written and produced by women, and the film provides a stark contrast to male-dominated, high-action, Hollywood movies where valour is chosen for its market pull. This film makes a boldly-stated case for female heroism at the time of war, in a way that communicates genuinely inspiring human courage. 

Rialto Distribution
Released 26 December 2020
Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media 


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