“A Call to Spy” braids the stories of three decorated WWII spies to reveal — and to revel in — their pivotal roles in British spy craft and history. The title may fall flat but the movie, a sturdy directorial debut for producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, gets to the heart of the matter. Even as they faced various forms of discrimination, Vera Atkins, Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan responded boldly to the tug of duty. They served Britain, and the movie does a stand-up job honoring them even as its prettiness calls into question the medium’s over-reliance on war as the crucible in which all heroism is to be measured.
A scene of torture begins the film. The year is 1941, and Germany has invaded France. The person being interrogated is a woman. Soaked, gasping, she will not crumble. Turns out, she doesn’t have to. The woman is Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), and to our relief, she’s undergoing the final test in her training. Three months earlier, the Special Operations Executive branch of the British government began recruiting “lady spies.” Winston Churchill had a hunch they’d be able to move through enemy territory without drawing the wrong kind of attention. The movie extends that early mercy only so far: There will be casualties and losses in the fight to fortify the Resistance in France. One in three British spies in France was killed; and it’s hard to forget that the outrages of WWII lead to the Geneva Conventions. Germany’s genocide isn’t the focus here, but signs of it gnaw at the margins of the action, and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, makes a cameo.
The film’s screenwriter portrays Hall, a well-traveled American living in London. She hopes to become a diplomat and though she’s done much to position herself for that possibility, she continues to get thanks-but-no-thanks letters from back home. Each of the women has two counts against her. One they share in common: They are women. Hall also has a wooden leg. Atkins (Stana Katic) is judged by her Jewish-Romanian heritage. And Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a mixed-race Indian Muslim, feels she must prove her place in British society.
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Even when their governments fall short in the allegiance department, these women maintain a big-picture vision both of what they are fighting — fascism — and how their roles as citizens matter. In this regard, “A Call to Spy” joins other films — such as “Red Tails” and “Miracle at St. Anna” — in providing a more inclusive portrait of those who laid their lives on the line in WWII. The Greatest Generation wasn’t composed solely of corn-fed, ruddy cheeked young white men. If you’re hearing any echoes with the current historical moment, that’s one of Pilcher’s aims.
To its credit, the film doesn’t let Britain’s anti-Semitism go unindicted. While Col. Maurice Buckminster (Linus Roache) believes in her, Vera is also getting rebuffed by her adopted government. Even so, she continues to do a canny job. Put in charge of recruits for this new “club unlike any other,” as Buckminster puts it, Atkins zeroes in on the headstrong Hall and Khan, an ace wire operator and Sufi pacifist.
Once in the field in Lyon, Hall rises in the estimation of her bosses and earns the trust of a nascent cell of resistance fighters, among them Dr. Raoul Chevain (Rossif Sutherland) and Alfonse (Andrew Richardson). A fiery priest garners attention from both sides for his street-corner homilies about Hitler. Father Robert Alesch (Joe Doyle) and Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann) are, like the film’s heroes, actual historical figures.
Pilcher has assembled a crew that delivers elegant work. Editor Paul Tothill keeps the pace marching forward while dividing screen time between the three leads. Taut but never cloying, the score by Lillie Rebecca McDonough is nicely disciplined, often urgent but never cloying. Still, it’s the characters and their portrayers who earn the emotional investment, in particular Apte as Noor and Katic as her boss. As Hall, Thomas occasionally forces matters. The super-spy utters a few tough-gal sentences (written by Thomas) that ring a bit tinny. When a compatriot warns her that a plane can’t be on the makeshift airstrip for longer than 10 minutes, her retort skirts the hackneyed. “We’ll do it in five,” she says.
Director of photography Robby Baumgartner uses the sort of 1940s-era movie-star closeups for Atkins that serve the determined set of Katic’s jaw and her unwavering gaze well. The camera pulls back on Apte’s Khan not so far that we lose the connection to her warm face, but far enough to acknowledge her diminutive frame. At some of the most harrowing times in the film — outside a waylaid train in the countryside, for instance — she seems less like a spy than an apprehensive schoolgirl.
History-borrowing films bring out the vetting impulses in moviegoers — or should. Their reliance on story arcs often comes at the expense of facts, while functioning well as signs pointing viewers to the local library. “A Call to Spy” makes a compelling case to read up on each of its heroes, who under bolder market circumstances might well have carried her own biopic. (In 2017, it was announced Daisy Ridley would portray Hall in “A Woman of No Importance,” based on the Sonia Purnell’s book.) Even so, Thomas’ group portrait has its advantages. In a world hungering for depictions of national valor and compassion, the movie’s variations on heroism are a boon.