Brendan Da Costa

A Call to Spy (2020) Poster

Title: A Call to Spy


Directed by: Lydia Dean Pilcher


Written by: Sarah Megan Thomas


Starring: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache


Produced by: Sarah Megan Thomas

“The real-world exploits of

Virginia Hall

Noor Inayat

Vera Atkins

are truly heroic.”

Reel Talk - A Call to Spy (2019)

A Call to Spy is a shallow, ankle-deep dive into its subject matter. It’s not terribly well produced, pretty poorly acted and definitely shoddily written. But, damn it, if it isn’t still worth a watch for its subject matter alone.

 

A Call to Spy is a World War II historical spy drama based on the heroic real-world exploits of Virginia Hall, Noor Inayat and Vera Atkins. The film was produced, written by and stars Sarah Megan Thomas and won the Audience Choice Award at the 2019 Whistler Film Festival.

 

A Call to Spy is one of the rare films that succeeds in spite of itself. Its biggest flaw begins with its script. The film attempts to tell the stories of three female spies from WWII but ultimately sinks in the sheer volume of material that it attempts to swim in. The result is a largely disjointed narrative with little to no tension at all.

      “What should have looked like a life-threatening mountain climb resembled more of a casual hike on a pleasant winter trail.

Momentous events and dates are marked by throwaway lines of dialogue while altogether odd and distracting montages serve as the connective tissue between larger scenes. The ambitious effort to weave together the disparate narratives of its characters and to show the full scope of their accomplishments is commendable. However, the lack of specificity—and deliberate manipulation of historical fact—leaves audiences feeling a bit adrift as the film flails through its two-hour runtime.

 

If Thomas had, instead, written the film as a miniseries, it would have afforded her the kind of space she needed to actually dive into the lives of the characters she clearly respects so much. It would also have given her the opportunity to craft better scenes to build tension and pay greater respect to historical accuracy. Instead, we’re left skimming the surface of these deeply fascinating women and skipping across their heroic exploits like a stone over calm waters, wondering all the while what lies beneath the surface.

 

Normally, in instances such as these, audiences can rely on the cast to carry the writer’s water. However, even the film’s more experienced cast visibly struggle to connect to the inner workings of their characters. The script expects them to make massive emotional leaps, jumping from one character-defining moment to the next as if they were jumping between too-distant rocks across a river. More often than not, they slip and fall.

The only member of the cast that really managed to find their character in the sea of bad writing that plagued this film was Radhika Apte as Noor Inayat.

It is also Thomas, in her capacity this time as actress, who feels most of out place in this film. Her portrayal of Virginia Hall is questionable, not just in its historicity, but in its inconsistency as well. Thomas has none of the naturally intrepid and adventurous spirit of her historical counterpart—she’s just a poor casting choice for the role.

 

Instead, Thomas brings a simmering uncertainty to her character that is constantly at odds with the high-stakes situations in which her character finds herself. It’s difficult to suspend one’s imagination long enough to believe that Thomas’ Virginia Hall is capable of operating deftly in the world of espionage—far less of running one of the longest serving spy rings in World War II.

 

It is also Thomas, in her capacity this time as actress, who feels most of out place in this film.

Her portrayal of Virginia Hall is questionable, not just in its historicity, but in its inconsistency as well. Thomas has none of the naturally intrepid and adventurous spirit of her historical counterpart—she’s just a poor casting choice for the role.

 

Instead, Thomas brings a simmering uncertainty to her character that is constantly at odds with the high-stakes situations in which her character finds herself. It’s difficult to suspend one’s imagination long enough to believe that Thomas’ Virginia Hall is capable of operating deftly in the world of espionage—far less of running one of the longest serving spy rings in World War II.

 

The only member of the cast that really managed to find their character in the sea of bad writing that plagued this film was Radhika Apte as Noor Inayat. Even Stana Katic as Vera Atkins managed to eke out a few moments in which to shine but it was obvious that she never really had the space she needed to work herself up into any kind of authentic emotion. Unfortunately for us all, instead of giving more space to Katic and Apte, Thomas kept the focus of the film squarely on herself.

 

Quite apart from those shortcomings, there are some good things to say about the film’s set and costume design. While not always great—and at times visibly incongruous—the crew managed to do well with what would have undoubtedly been grand expectations for world-building with a less than grand budget. And the outsized ambition of this project bumped up against its budget in more than just a few ways.

The lack in production quality shows in some glaring ways that, despite the best efforts of director Lydia Dean Pilcher, pull the audience right out of the WWII reality of our super spy protagonists. The most egregious example of this was Virginia Hall’s daring escape through the Pyrenees. What should have looked like a life-threatening mountain climb resembled more of a casual hike on a pleasant winter trail.

 

Similarly, poor music editing left the film’s world feeling empty and sparse during what should have been some its tensest or most emotional moments. Of course, the film’s music editor wasn’t helped by the fact that the score was ultimately forgettable and somewhat tonally discordant.

“But, damn it, if it isn’t still worth a watch for its subject matter alone.”

For all of its faults, however, from the technical to the artistic, A Call to Spy manages to do what it set out to, i.e., pay some much overdue respect to these unsung WWII heroes. Its insistence is reminiscent of the tenacity of its actual historical subjects; they were ill-equipped, unassuming and made it all up as they went along. It worked for them, it kind of works for this film too.