A Call to Spy cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Radhika Apte, Stana Katic, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland
A Call to Spy director: Lydia Dean Pilcher
A Call to Spy rating: Four stars
A Call to Spy is a rare World War II film that doesn’t seek to strike awe and fear — the requisites now to win battles. Quite in character with its heroes, a group of largely unheralded women spies (“the headless”, as they were called) who helped Resistance efforts in a France occupied by Hitler’s Army, it is un-showy and un-bombastic, populated by little people meeting their little deaths, not with big, big bangs but with big, big hearts.
For us, in the subcontinent, of course, A Call to Spy is vital as one of the people it shines light on is Noor Inayat Khan, born to an India-born Sufi mystic and a British mother, who was picked for her wireless abilities, placed in one of the toughest posts during the war, and was commended for bravely holding onto it till the end.
Director Pilcher, associated with films like Queen of Katwe and The Reluctant Fundamentalist which also dealt with worlds where cultures meet freely, uses Apte well in the role of Noor, not overplaying or undermining her Eastern ancestry — placing the talented actor shoulder-to-shoulder among her contemporaries.
The film, however, belongs to Thomas, who wrote the film, produced it and stars as Virginia Hall, who made her way into history courtesy the network of agents she helped establish behind enemy lines. A freak accident having left her with a leg amputated below the knee, Hall makes her way into the F Section of the British Special Operations — operating out of 13, Baker Street — because her disability means America won’t let her become a diplomat.
Thomas radiates quiet and dignified courage, especially required of a woman who must mollify male egos while making her way through uncharted territory. It is this undeniable quality that earns Thomas the trust and friendships she needs to build a network right under the noses of a ruthless and keenly watching Gestapo Army.
Pilcher does well to bring out several of these friendships, especially in the light of the risks these run. A doctor (Sutherland) who is Virginia’s initial contact is just one of the men and women who keep the Resistance burning, with A Call to Spy heartwarmingly acknowledging the same.
Katic plays Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jew who is on paper a mere secretary but who is actually running the women spies for the British Special Operations. A statuesque actor, Katic’s Atkins is one character, battling her own odds and fears — including a male colleague’s instruction that the women be “pretty” — who could have done with some fleshing out. It’s a question the film raises — whether those behind the desk are doing their bit as much as those in the field. A Call to Spy wants the answer to be yes, but falls somewhere at a maybe.