A Call to Spy review – meticulous depiction of female war-time agents

‘Make sure they’re pretty,” a bespectacled Special Operations Executive wonk tells Vera Atkins, the Romanian born “spymistress” (played by Stana Katic) charged with building a network of French-speaking female undercover operatives in the early days of the second world war. Written by Sarah Megan Thomas and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, this is a righteously conceived drama designed to highlight the smothering sexism that greeted women’s contributions to the war effort, in particular anything that smacked of ambition above lowly clerical grades.

A Call to Spy zeroes in on two of Atkins’ real-life recruits, and takes its time spelling out their individual stories. Virginia Hall (played by writer Thomas) is an American embassy worker with a prosthetic foot seething at being denied a career as a diplomat, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a wireless operator and daughter of an Indian Sufi mystic, who has to contend with her pacifist inclinations to join the mission. Hall is the first to go into action, dropped into Vichy France to contact agents and help get them out. Khan is sent out to join her, underprepared but with a vital specialism in signals; once on the ground, she has to keep permanently on the move as illegal radio transmissions can be traced. Hall makes her way to Lyon where she organises attacks and assists agents as they pass through; Khan heads to Paris where, as history records, disaster awaits.

Wearing its meticulous research and art direction on its sleeve, A Call to Spy benefits from the considerable effort that has clearly gone into re-creating period interiors and ephemera, including everything from restaurant cutlery to authentic looking drawings of electrical circuitry; although it does struggle with the street scenes, where the circumscribed scope and budgetary limitation makes things look a little stage-managed. Admittedly, there’s a lot of ground to cover and the film dutifully does its best, with sonorous radio news announcements doing a lot of heavy lifting. Thomas and Pilcher are determined to avoid making a flashy war epic, and stress the sacrifices of everyone involved; the downside of this is that A Call to Spy has a stolid pacing that makes you feel every minute of its two-hours-plus running time. But it’s still an interesting story that’s yet to fully come into the light.

  • A Call to Spy is released in cinemas and on digital platforms from 23 October.