A Call To Spy, starring Radhika Apte as the Indian-origin British spy Noor Inayat Khan, is now streaming on Amazon Prime and we finally have one more addition to the rather small oeuvre of women-centric films around World War II. A Call To Spy provides a more inclusive portrait of those who laid their lives on the line in war, which unlike what pop culture tells us, wasn’t composed solely of ruddy-cheeked young white men. The film is undeniably a heartfelt take on the true tale of women’s contributions to the war effort and their heroism. The story revolves around three women in the spy operation carried out by Britain; Vera Atkins, Virginia Hall, and Noor Inayat Khan. While history remembers all three as heroes, these women were subjected to a mixture of antisemitism, sexism and racism from their fellow soldiers, something that the film aptly highlights.
The film is written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher. It stars Sarah Megan Thomas as Virginia Hall, Radhika Apte as Noor Inayat Khan and Stana Katic as Vera Atkins. The screenplay draws on SOE (Special Operations Executive), OSS (Operations Support Systems), and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) files. The film had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June last year. It had also won awards at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the Whistler Film Festival.
The film begins in the year 1941, after Germany has invaded France. The opening shot shows a woman, soaked and gasping, being interrogated. The lady, as we are told, is Virginia Hall and she is undergoing the final test in her training. We then get to know that the training she is undergoing is for the spies hired by the Special Operations Executive branch of the British government.
Realising that they need to gather more intel and spark sabotage in and around France, the Churchill government ordered recruitment of female agents for the job: “Women will be more inconspicuous”, as Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) explains in a scene. So we see a key officer, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), finding two unusual candidates to go undercover in France: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an American with a wooden leg, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a Muslim pacifist of Indian-American origins. From there we follow the journey of these three women. The film doesn’t focus on one major event – there is no D day with a final victory bell ringing in the background – but instead, it leads through years of service and these women’s aims to gather info on Nazi plans.
What Works and What Doesn’t
Radhika Apte is in her best form as Noor Inayat Khan, the British spy of Indian origins who worked in Churchill’s spy agency as a radio operator, before relocating to France as an undercover spy. All the dialogues given to her character are hard-hitting. There is a scene, albeit one of my favourites from the film, where Hall is trying to tell Khan that she cannot be both a pacifist and a spy because they are being trained to kill, to which Khan replies, “they are training us to survive.” Sadly, the film does not give her enough screen time. In fact, it is quite disappointing how the bulk of the film is dedicated solely to Hall’s exploits, completely overlooking Khan’s tremendous contributions and Atkins’ overarching war efforts.
One of the best things about the film is that its writer/producer, director and stars are all females. As a result, it differs a lot from the typically male-dominated genre of espionage films. Just count the number of scenes that has women concerning themselves with subjects other than men and you’d know what I mean. But then, A Call To Spy lacks the urgency and grit that is needed for it to be wholly considered a spy film, despite the title.
The emphasis of the film is more on the courage than the suspense. So while it makes for a good historical watch, there is a lingering sense that the story probably would have done much better as a television miniseries instead. Regardless, A Call To Spy should be on everybody’s must-watch list for it is one of the very few films that seeks to highlight the smothering sexism that greeted women’s contributions to the war effort, both during their lifetimes and after.
Picture Credit: IBC
Views expressed are the author’s own.