So, circa-1940, right about after the time Hitler traipsed into France to declare "Yeah, this is all mine now," Britain's Special Operations Executive (kind of like their CIA) was like, "Hey, you know what? The world's super-misogynist, so if we trained some women how to do spy stuff, they could probably operate in France without calling a lot of attention to themselves!"
And so they did. It's a rather fascinating and thrilling bit of history told in great detail by filmmaker Lydia Dean Pilcher (Radium Girls) in A Call to Spy, one of the deeper non-documentary dives into the subject.
Recruiting from various military branches, secretarial pools, diplomatic administrators and the like, the SOE's Vera Atkins (Castle's Stana Katic) cobbles together a small batch of the first lady spies, sends them into Lyon and pretty much turns the tide of things for both the war and women forever. And though the film claims inspiration from numerous lady spies of the day, it mainly focuses on the efforts of the American Virginia Hall (spy name Bridgette, eventually the first woman agent of the CIA and played by Sarah Megan Thomas, who also produces here) and England's Noor Inayat Khan (spy name Madeline, England's first-ever wireless operator, female Muslim war hero and literal Indian royalty/descendent of Tipu Sultan; Radhika Apte).
It's disappointing the bulk of the film goes to Hall's exploits given Khan's pedigree and resume and Atkins' overarching war efforts, though the American certainly spent more time in the field bombing trains and busting resistance members out of jail and doing other things that are probably more exciting for film. Thomas brings a quiet dignity to the role and achieves more with a simple expression than seems possible.
Apte, on the other hand, does what she can with less screen time and would-be inspiring lines like "I couldn't just sit by and do nothing!" that tiptoe up to ham-fisted but make a certain kind of sense given the real-life woman's obvious dedication (she apparently never spilled a secret after being captured by Nazis). Atkins cuts an intriguing story as well, a Romanian Jew repeatedly denied British citizenship despite her innumerable contributions to the liberation of France and Europe at large. She, too, gets fewer minutes than Hall, which becomes another disappointment given Katic's bubbling rage and hard-won heartache in the face of duty and something larger than herself.
Pity, then, that the overall feel of the film is that of a BBC miniseries. It certainly tracks that Pilcher is trying to pack a lot of story into a brief couple hours, but some scenes feel unnecessary or burdensome, others too brief. Those who didn't know should take notice, however, particularly misogynists and closeted fascists. There was a time when the globe united over things like this, and unsurprisingly, women led the way in with more important actions than we realize. Invaluable history lesson? No question. Great movie? Maybe not.
+Fantastic stories of amazing women
-Strange pacing; not enough Noor Khan
A Call to Spy
Directed by Pilcher
With Thomas, Apte and Katic
Amazon, PG-13, 123 min.