‘A Call to Spy’ Elegantly Follows a Few Brave Women Who Became Spies During World War II
The average World War II movie tends to focus primarily on the war aspect. Major action sequences, heroic moments and carnage have defined the genre for decades. “A Call to Spy” takes a quieter, more introspective, yet nonetheless engaging approach. It finds inspiration from Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, created by an isolated U.K. to “set Europe ablaze” by sending out infiltrators and sabotage experts into Nazi-occupied zones. The film’s star, Sarah Megan Thomas, also happens to be its writer. “I wanted to tell a spy drama that was different from what I had seen before,” Thomas told Entertainment Voice, “I always start with the genre. My last film was ‘Equity,’ a Wall Street film, the first female-driven Wall Street movie, and I pick a genre that’s kind of commercial and will entertain, but then I look at the female lens within the genre.”
“A Call to Spy” does cast a more feminine eye at the underground side of the war. Thomas plays Virginia Hall, an American journalist who dreams of being a diplomat, but keeps getting rejected because of her wooden leg. When Churchill forms the SOE, Virginia finds herself going over to England to join the cause. Leading the department are Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) and Romanian Jewish refugee, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic). Their team will include Hall and pacifist Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), with links being formed with informants inside occupied France. Once their training is complete, Hall and Khan are sent into France to carry out acts of sabotage, rescue other agents and avoid getting captured by Nazi troops headed by Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann).
Elegantly directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, “A Call to Spy” is less about violence than about the personalities involved in the SOE, their fears and tense work. Dissecting code, resisting torture and not knowing who to trust inside Vichy France give a clearer feel for what life inside the occupied territories was like. “When I was researching Churchill’s secret army, this kind of sabotage and subversion army that was thrown into France as an experiment, with women specifically because they were ‘more inconspicuous than the men,’ I realized a film had never been made about these women. I just knew this story had to be told,” said Thomas. “The thriller aspect is more focused on the psychological, as opposed to car chases and large special effects from James Bond. Our drama is about, will these women live?”
Thomas’s female leads are not romanticized war icons, but committed women living in dangerous times who also harbor uncertainties have intriguing debates about pacifism and violence. Hall is the one everyone doubts at first, who then turns into the most efficient spy, while Atkins hopes to receive British citizenship to avoid being captured by the Germans and sent to a death camp. “They didn’t know day in and day out who they could trust, I found that to be a fascinating angle,” said Thomas. “The three lead women are real women. One of the reasons I chose them for this movie is not only were they the first in their field as spies, Virginia was the first female field agent, Vera Atkins was the first female spy recruiter for this agency, but also their diversity. What was interesting to me as the writer/producer was that their diversity proved critical to the success of their missions. Noor was a pacifist, Virginia was more of a fighter, but they were equally effective in their jobs in different ways. I was hoping to tell this more global story, which is timely, about how people from different backgrounds did, and can, unite to resist this larger evil.”
Thomas’s script has the vivid feel of a work that has been heavily researched to get every detail right. Nothing feels exaggerated, but precise, even when Hall and Khan undergo weapons and combat training. Scenes familiar from other spy yarns, like Hall putting on a blonde wig to disguise her identity, have a more down to earth feel in this movie. These were not superheroes, but brave women learning the craft of hidden identities. “Everyone was willing to speak to me because everyone wants these women’s stories to be told, so I was given Virginia Hall and Vera Atkins’s real spy files and read them all. The OSS, which is the precursor to the CIA, I was able to speak with them. We also spoke to the friends of Atkins and Hall. We also had an ‘SOE consultant,’ an expert who I was able to ask, ‘does this make sense? Is this realistic?’ So there was just a ton of research because it was so important for me to tell their stories. You can’t find recordings of Virginia Hall or interviews, for obvious reasons, so we had to work hard to make sure the movie was true to the arc of history,” said Thomas. “In terms of this being a story of guerrilla war, it was important for me not to have too much violence in the film. For me personally as a viewer, when I watch World War II films, the violence takes me out of the movie if it’s graphic. Obviously World War II was incredibly violent, but we got a PG-13 rating and that was really important to me so younger women can see this film and it can be educational.”
For Thomas it was important to find a female director to tell a war story about women’s experiences. “It was important for me to find a female director, given what the story is, when I met with Lydia to interview for it, what struck me was how in her other life she’s also a big producer, having produced tons and tons of films. The personal aspect of her filmmaking really appealed to me. When we got together to make this film, we made it a joint mission to hire more women behind the camera and really be true to these women’s lives.”
“A Call to Spy” features a world of collaborators and villains, like Klaus Barbie, the stone-faced Nazi trying to hunt down the SOE agents, who actually lived. Even priests in the French world the spies operate in could be collaborators with the fascist invaders. And while the events of the film are from a titanic conflict from eight decades ago, Thomas feels there is a timeless urgency to its story. “It’s a very timely film in terms of its themes because it’s really standing up and taking action as an individual for what you believe in. Vote, go out there and vote. So, I hope the message is we can all stand up for what we believe in. We have choices where we can collaborate, choose to do nothing or resist or take action. I hope that we learn to have a dialogue with everybody, including people we disagree with. I want to learn that better and take action for what we believe in.”
“A Call to Spy” releases Oct. 2 on VOD and in select cities.