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Continuing the trend of notably female-led films comes a story taking place during early WWII. A Call to Spy (a variation of ‘a call to arms’) looks at the true story of three women involved in Churchill’s Secret Army, formed to undermine the Nazi regime in France by means of sabotage and resistance building. Stana Katic plays the ‘spymistress’ Vera Atkins, working for the Special Operations Executive who recruits two women with distinct features. One is Virginia Hall, played by Sarah Megan Thomas (who also wrote and produced the film), who has the handicap of a prosthetic leg, and the other, Noor Inayat Khan (played by Radhika Apte) is an Indian Muslim pacifist. Hall has long pursued work as a diplomat but kept facing rejection due to her handicap. Khan is a highly skilled wireless operator.
The film balances the contrasting tones of cold brutality with warm comradery and family throughout. It aptly begins with a scene of brutality, where a character is interrogated using water torture, and one particular training exercise shown early on is then reflected later in the film as a group of characters are confronted by a figure of the aggressive Nazi authority. On the emotional end of the spectrum, one of the most touching moments of the film concerns the fate of one of the leads, as their adoptive figure learns of the news of their presumed fate.
As per its subject matter, the film explores timely themes such as the reception to women in such roles by some of their male peers. We are given a taste of this early on with quiet comments by the male peers being shut down by the superior in the room, telling them to ‘get used to lady spies’. This was a refreshing touch for this genre, where such gender politics are less prominent.
One of the stand-out moments in the film for me was the reveal of a particular traitor, and how he is handled by the Gestapo chief giving him orders. Interrupted mid-sentence with a sharp and powerful scolding, the traitor is a meek and fearful man, while Marc Rissman plays the chief who flows flawlessly from thunderous authority, to quiet appreciation.
Richly plotted and highly engrossing, A Call to Spy is a great entry to the genre, taking a look at a lesser known element of WW2. Sarah Megan Thomas conducted the research that led to this film, and it can be considered a highlight for the film world, especially in the pandemic landscape of last year.
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