A Call To Spy

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Liberté: A Call To Spy
"Pilcher strikes a good balance between interpersonal drama, nerve-racking action scenes and focus on the cat and mouse game that the women are caught up in." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

What does a spy look like? The most famous image we're familiar with is that of James Bond, and for most of film history, 90% of the spies we saw onscreen were male. In reality, espionage agencies prefer to recruit people the enemy won't suspect. - yet curiously, it wasn't until the advent of World War Two that Britain considered training women for the job, a move attributed to Winston Churchill. Written by star Sarah Megan Thomas and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, this film is based on the real stories of some of the women among those first recruits.

Thomas plays Virginia Hall, an American who tried in vain for many years to get a job as a diplomat, frequently facing discrimination because of her wooden leg. Stana Katic is Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jew who wants the chance to fight back against the enemies of her people and secure her status as a refugee settled in England. And Radhika Apte is Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian-Russian princess and expert wireless operator. Together the three of them try to make their way with shockingly little support at a stage when the attrition rate for all spies was high. Mistakes are made, sometimes with fatal consequences. Churchill aside, few of those in power seem to take them seriously enough to invest in their security.

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Focused mostly on Virginia and Noor's experiences in France (for the uninitiated, it's worth noting that having brown skin didn't always place one on a Nazi hate list), the film stays true to the known facts and avoids sentimentality or the addition of Hollywood style romance. The most important emotional bonds in the film are those forged between the women when they live together briefly during their training, whilst Vera forms a strong connection with her immediate supervisor and we see scenes of Noor with her mother, who begs her not to go. This, together with the quality of the performances, is quite sufficient to help viewers connect with the women and care about their fate.

With three different strands to balance, as the women spend most of their time apart, Pilcher strikes a good balance between interpersonal drama, nerve-racking action scenes and focus on the cat and mouse game that the women are caught up in. The tension ebbs and flows, engaging without exhausting the viewer. Of the three leads, Apte is the standout. Though she spends much of the film alone and has comparatively few lines, her face and body language tell us all we need to know about what Noor is going through and why she's doing it.

Pilcher's spies are not cool and aloof; they are human, frightened and very alone in dangerous circumstances, and the fact that they anticipated this and did what they did anyway makes the film a fine tribute to the real women whose stories it tells. These are not the heroes we usually see presented to us as the face of the war effort, but they remind us of the real cost of victory.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2020
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A drama inspired by true stories of women recruited as spies during the Second World War, who were sent to occupied France to disrupt the Nazis.

Festivals:

EIFF 2019

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