A solid, straightforward narrative — heavy on the history, light in melodrama — is the best recommendation for “A Call to Spy,” a true story of World War II and an American woman who joined British agents to do perform espionage in Occupied France.
The life story of Virginia Hall was exciting enough that not much embellishment was needed for this film, which actress Sarah Megan Thomas scripted as a star vehicle for herself. Although it betrays its modest budget in the limited and malnourished action sequences, the low-wattage “star power” and the somewhat polished if faintly flat TV movie production design and pacing, it does justice to its subject, even if it leaves her more colorless than we’d hope.
In 1941, shortly before the debacle/”miracle” of Dunkirk, the Brits set up the Special Operations Executive to train and recruit agents in case France fell. When it did, recruiter/supervisor Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) had women already well into training for the work of infiltrating Franceh, gathering intelligence, setting up networks, paying partisans and arranging or directly carrying out sabotage of the German war machine.
Atkins’ boss, Col. Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) embraced her idea that however dangerous the work, women were “more inconspicuous” than men in the field in France. Virginia Hall, a frustrated member of the U.S. foreign service, limited in promotions because of a wooden leg, was among those Atkins lined up. Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a Russian-born Indian Muslim already in the service as a radio operator, was another.
We get a glimpse of their training, from “ungentlemanly warfare” (self-defense) to surviving torture, and then they’re off — smuggled into France to help lead the struggle to free Europe from Naziism.
“Yours will be a lonely courage,” they hear as they depart (separately). As Virginia sets up networks and leans on her instincts about who to trust, Noor skips from location to location, her radio set in tow, barely a full step ahead of the Germans and their radio-tracking French collaborators.
Director Lydia Dean Pilcher did “Radium Girls” just before this film, another modest but moving piece of overlooked women’s history. The drama is embedded in the situations here, as Pilcher doesn’t manage more than a scene or two of genuine suspense, despite the terror of this work.
Thomas, who also wrote and and co-starred in “Equity,” scripts herself some juicy scenes — Hall living by her instincts, having to throw her weight around amongst sexist Frenchmen and even more sexist Brits — but rarely makes as much out of them as we’d like. The historical Hall was to the manner born and didn’t suffer slights easily — more smart and tough than plucky. Here we get an adequate performance where something with more heat and flash was called for.
Apte (“The Wedding Guest”) comes closer to the mark in a narrower role, a younger, more timid radio operator barely prepared for what she must deal with and its consequences.
The dialogue is WWII boilerplate — “It doesn’t feel right.” “So we’re acting on feelings, now?”
And although the film hews closely to the historical record, the pace is so sedate one wonders if a brisker production could have carried the story on to the war’s end, as Hall’s exploits were ongoing.
As other films on Hall and the extraordinary women of SOE are still in the planning stages, “A Call to Spy” remains the defining take on their heroics and contributions to the war effort. Let’s hope Netflix picking it up greases the wheels toward a bigger budget, more exciting and more thorough accounting. There’s a mini series in this.
Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, language, and smoking
Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Radhika Apte, Stana Katic, Rossif Sutherland and Linus Roache.
Credits: Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, scripted by Sarah Megan Thomas. An IFC release on Netflix.
Running time: 2:03