A Call to Spy Review — a dull, stagnant history lesson

By Marc Miller
Published: October 6, 2020 (Last updated: December 6, 2023)


A Call to Spy is a dull, stagnant history lesson when it should be anything but.

A Call to Spy is an old-fashioned historical drama whose timing, organization, and pace are as stale as the genre itself. Which makes the result all that more head-scratching. The film has such an interesting premise, and its historical context is so significant, this should be a home run for everyone involved. Instead, it’s a dull and stagnant history lesson when it should be anything but boring. That falls squarely on the shoulders of its director, long time and respected producer Lydia Dean Pulcher, making her directorial feature debut (her long-delayed and highly anticipated Radium Girls still does not have a new release date).

A Call to Spy is stamped with the incredible true story label. It chronicles the beginning of Winston Churchill’s Secret Operations Executive (SEO). The SEO sent over three dozen female spies to Axis-occupied lands only to have over a third of them disappear and never be heard from again. The handler for the team is the head “spy mistress” Vera Atkins (Absentia’s Stana Katic). She thinks outside the box and makes two unusual choices with recruiting. The first is a disabled American woman with a wooden leg, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas). The other is Noor Inayat Khan (Lust Stories and The Wedding Guest’s Radhika Apte), an Indian Muslim pacifist immigrant, but an English citizen. She gives them their mission — to create sabotage and build a resistance.

Spy films are exciting just from the premise. While I laid the blame at Pulcher’s feet, she is not alone. Actress Sarah Megan Thomas wrote the script, gave herself the plum lead role, and unfortunately is not up for the challenge. The script is too concerned with the politics of Atkin’s character in a male-dominated field. There are virtually no concerns or haunted memories of not knowing what has happened to her team.

You have three legendary figures; Thomas’s Hall was considered the most dangerous spy of the Allied forces by Germany. Apte’s Khan was awarded the George Cross. She was also the first female operator sent into occupied France. Katic’s Atkins was a leader in cryptanalysis. Virtually, none of this is touched and the script is too cluttered to be effective. The script really needed to break up the equal treatment among the three by having Katic’s role reduced substantially to a supporting character. I praise a studio that casts the talented Radhika Apte in a lead role and she is clearly the best part of the film.

A Call to Spy really needed more excitement and intrigue in the spycraft that would have only highlighted the human element more. I’m not sure the training involved spotting spies in the 1940s, but I’m fairly certain I would grab the one with eyebrows that don’t match the painfully obvious blonde wig they are wearing. The characters portrayed in this film are heroes who deserve a better effort to tell their story. Until then, we will have to settle for this honorable effort, albeit a middling one.

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