A Call to Spy – Film Review

Spoiler warning ahead! Do not underestimate women. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas, A Call to Spy tells the true story of female spies working for the Special Operation Executive, a British secret organisation formed during WWII in order to perform espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage in occupied Europe as well as aiding local resistance movements. The movie focuses on Vera Atknis (Stana Katic), who is charged by the SOE to form a group of women to infiltrate the non-occupied part of France, and her two recruits: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), a disabled American journalist, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a young Indian Muslim immigrant. 

The film shows the struggles of these three women, at a time when the idea of women participating in the war effort as leaders and field agents was inconceivable for many British men. Atkins’s superior, Colonel Buckmaster (Linus Roache), is the only one in SOE who believes in her at first, as he asks her to build a team of amateur female spies to infiltrate France, as he believes that women will be more inconspicuous and less likely to be suspected of being spies. Hall’s dream of becoming a diplomat for the United States is a hopeless one, and Inayat Khan has to prove herself not only as a woman, but also as an Indian in a UK that is still dominating her home country. As the two are sent to France to gather information on the Nazis’ activities and help local resistance, they meet with local resistance fighters who assist them and protect them from the Gestapo. While most of them have no problem working with women spies, higher-ups in London are very untrusting of them and prefer to rely on the professional men to do the job. Inayat Khan’s lack of experience and Hall’s disability, having lost a leg to gangrene following a hunting accident, don’t make their task easier either. Atkins’s life is not easy either, as a Jewish Romanian immigrant struggling to obtain British citizenship in a time when Brits themselves are becoming distrusting of Jews, making the future of her operation with the SOE doubly uncertain. But it is by persevering and proving that they can do the job as good as men that these three women eventually leave their trace in history as WWII heroes.

Set at the beginning of WWII, the film also shows the harsh reality of France during the Nazi occupation, and the efforts of the UK and local resistance movements to undermine the Nazis’ tyranny. The women’s best ally in France is Doctor Chevain (Rossif Sutherland), a physician and resistance fighter who ends up executed by the Nazis after being betrayed by Father Alesch, a priest working as a double agent for the Nazis while pretending to be a resistance fighter. Their other allies include Sister Francis, a nun who shelters them in her convent, Georges, a mechanic who helps them sabotage an ammunition shipment, and many more who are willing to help the British spies free their country from the German invaders as more and more of their compatriots fall victim to their hateful propaganda. While some of the French accents could have been more convincing (many of the French characters being played by English-speaking actors), the film does a good job of portraying a France that has been taken over by the Nazis, where people are forced to line up to pick up their rations in order to eat, while art and entertainment is being replaced with antisemitic propaganda, and the Nazis are tightening their grip on occupied Europe.

And unfortunately, not everything ends well for the spies. Alesch’s treason causes them to become wanted all across France, and while Hall is able to return to London after fleeing to Spain, Inayat Khan is captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. After leading British spies into a trap by sending a false message from her radio, they keep her chained in a cell for ten months, torturing her to obtain information on Hall, until she is eventually deported to the Dachau concentration camp where she is executed. 

A Call to Spy is the story of three women who changed history. Their efforts in France are what convinced the American OSS to mount a joint operation with the SOE, sabotaging the Nazi war effort in order to allow D-Day to happen. They also paved the way for many more women to become spies in the UK, with Hall training a new group of wireless operatives after the SOE took her advice to train more wireless, as she noticed their too low numbers as a major flow in the SOE’s operations. Atkins became the official head of a group of female spies within the SOE after she eventually obtained British citizenship, and while Hall never became a diplomat, she eventually became the first female member of the CIA and was awarded the US Distinguished Service Cross. While Inayat Khan’s fate was not as happy, her refusal to reveal Hall’s location under torture is what allowed the latter to return to London safely, and she was posthumously awarded both the British George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. 

The movie is about celebrating the story of these women whose stories remained untold throughout history despite their major contribution to the war. While history is written by the victors, many of those victors still end up having their stories never told due to prejudice, and it takes a movie like this one for the world to even hear of them. While the movie is not perfect, it is an important look into history and honours these heroines who remain invisible in the history books.

A Call to Spy releases in Australian cinemas on 26th December.

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