There have been numerous films about WWII and spies made in Hollywood, but those that highlight the significant contribution of women during the war are still a rarity. I’ve been wanting to see this film that was released in 2019, but for some reason, it wasn’t available to rent until recently thanks to Netflix.
At the start of WWII in 1941, German has just invaded France. As things become increasingly desperate, prime minister Winston Churchill orders a new spy agency Special Operations Executive (SOE) to start recruiting and training women as spies. Originally called Liberté: A Call to Spy, the movie centered on Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), dubbed SOE’s spymistress, and the two women she recruited, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). It’s worth noting the women’s diverse circumstances and backgrounds that subjected them to discrimination: Hall is a woman with a physical disability, Atkins is Jewish-Romanian and Khan is a British-Indian Muslim.
The movie immediately puts us in a harrowing scene of a woman being waterboarded by men in Nazi uniforms. As she was gasping for air, she doesn’t relent or give in, and soon we find out the woman is Virginia Hall. That scene shows just what a daunting mission these women have, which is to conduct sabotage, send secret information, and build resistance in France. As if it weren’t enough to be a spy in a foreign land, Hall has a wooden leg, a disability that has kept her from being a diplomat which is her ultimate dream. But still, she wanted to serve the world, and becoming a spy was her way to do so.
There are way too many films about superheroes, but true heroes are those who have the courage to do extraordinary brave things against insurmountable odds. I feel so ignorant that I have not heard of these women prior to seeing this film, but now I realize just how huge of a role each of them played in undermining the Nazi regime in France. In fact, even the Gestapo regarded Hall as the most dangerous of all Allied spies.
The three female leads are all outstanding in their roles. Fans of Castle series would likely recognize Katic, but this is the first time I saw her in anything and I was impressed with her performance. I had only seen Apte in The Wedding Guest and this role proved her versatility as an actress. The talented Sarah Megan Thomas wore multiple hats as she also wrote and produced the film. This is the second film she wrote that I’m impressed with, the first is Equity, one of the few movies about women on Wall Street. Her extensive research as a screenwriter has likely helped her shape a deeply empathetic portrayal of the ambitious and valiant Virginia Hall who later became a pioneer at the CIA. British actor Linus Roache and Canadian Rossif Sutherland lend credible supporting roles as Atkin’s SOE boss and a Hall’s French ally, respectively.
Director Lydia Dean Pilcher did a splendid job placing the audience right in the middle of the action, pushing the PG-13 rating limit in showing the brutality of war without resorting to blood and gore. It might not be a flashy depiction of a war movie with all-out action, but there’s definitely enough spy craft action and clandestine operations. The French scenes were shot in Budapest but I think the visuals look pretty believable despite obvious budget limitations. Suspense, thrilling tension, adventure, compelling performances, and strong emotional impact… the movie has everything one looks for in a spy drama. I was thoroughly engaged in the plight and sacrifice of these women and their allies, and the 2-hour running time is well-paced.
I’m so glad I finally got to see this inspiring historical drama that highlights the untold story of three phenomenal women who made an impact in WWII. Having a female team in front and behind the camera made A Call To Spy extra special as it highlights women’s voices given wartime is a largely male-dominated sphere. I think each of these women deserves its own biopic given their unmistakable legacy, and reportedly there’s an upcoming film to be made about Virginia Hall based on Sonia Purnell’s biography.
It’s too bad there seems to be so little fanfare made about this film as the filmmakers did these heroic women justice with this film. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix, I hope more people will check it out.
Have you seen A Call To Spy? What did you think?