A Call to Spy, 2020.
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher.
Starring Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Sarah Megan Thomas, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, David Schaal, Matt Salinger, and Samuel Roukin.
In the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate, Churchill orders his new spy agency – SOE – to recruit and train women as spies.
Credit goes to A Call to Spy for telling a story of often unexplored types of World War II voices, but it still looks and plays out like an emotionally muted run-of-the-mill historical biopic. Sarah Megan Thomas is clearly passionate about the story being told, going as far as co-producing, writing, and starring as American clandestine operator Virginia Hall, one of the first-ever lady spies as part of Winston Churchill’s initiative taking a different approach to espionage following the fall of France to the Nazi regime.
It’s also more than a feminist period piece, as it also happens to be shining a light on a woman that was adamant about serving her country even with a prosthetic leg. As we meet some of the other spies including Muslim pacifist Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) and British intelligence officer Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) treated poorly by her country for being a Jew, it reveals itself to be a narrative of misfits who sacrificed a lot to turn the tide of the war only to be ignored by the history they were fighting for.
It’s also rather enjoyable for the first 30 minutes or so, starting off in medias res but with a twist when we catch up to that segment. The aforementioned characters introduced are all inherently likable with guts and intestinal fortitude for throwing themselves incognito behind enemy lines, and it’s pleasant that it’s not just going for one-note feminism. However, once the spies are deployed into Nazi-occupied France, Director Lydia Dean Pilcher (who also has another historical tale of female empowerment coming with Radium Girls, although given it has taken over two years since its festival premiere to release and the quality of this film there’s going to be some trepidation surrounding that one) the work in the field never really comes alive and the characters always feel distant. It’s almost as if there is too much going on even if the connecting thread of why these people are endangering themselves is worth applauding.
The various spies establish safe houses and connections, relay intel, scout nearby locations to discreetly bring home an injured soldier, and pull off other spy deeds but the film consistently feels flat. As much as I don’t like saying it took literal torture and terror to raise my engagement level back up, there is some urgency when elements such as betrayal and mistakes come into play, subsequently bringing in the notorious Klaus Barbie who goes on to have something of a rivalry with Virginia Hall. The stakes are raised and there’s more to the movie than watching simplistic duties. Some of the wardrobe ideas and accent changes to avoid detection by the enemy is also amusing and fascinating, but it can only carry A Call to Spy so far.
On one hand, it’s nice that A Call to Spy is not shoving Virginia Hall’s prosthetic leg into the center of the frame repeatedly or constantly reminding us that these people are different beyond gender, and on the other, it is sorely lacking in characterization beyond simply honoring these heroes. It has nothing to do with the performances, as everyone involved is fairly good. The direction just lacks excitement and runs out of interesting ideas as soon as the in media res opening is revealed in full context. Taking in the aftermath of this experiment is also intriguing as we essentially come away with the same knowledge of the characters about what went wrong, and there is some sadness in here regarding the fate of certain characters. Outside of that, it’s a typical World War II story that’s blandly executed even with its unique protagonists.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com