A Call To Spy movie review: Radhika Apte's tepid, half-baked WWII drama leaves viewers unsatiated
A Call to Spy scratches merely the surface of a cauldron that promises graver horrors told more powerfully.
A world embroiled in a deadly war; a country threatened by the anticipation of a fascist warlord across the English Channel; a people fighting desperately to overthrow the German SS military — A Call to Spy is yet another noble addition to the existing slate of films on arguably the most contentious period in history — World War II.
Britain crumbles under pressure of German invasion as Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg overthrows the French government to establish forces. Prime Minister Winston Churchill comes up with a retaliatory mission beautifully referred to as “ungentlemanly warfare” — an intricate network of sabotage, subversion, and resistance. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher from a script by Sarah Megan Thomas (also playing one of the leads), A Call to Spy elaborates the story behind the formation of England's Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940.
The SOE was tasked with creating a network of spies, especially females, who would work as wireless operators in enemy-occupied lands, passing dependable intel to British authorities, and sabotaging German military plans undercover.
Based on true events and characters, the film follows the arc of three model women of the time — Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the “spy mistress”, a Romanian Jewish immigrant in London, who was in charge of recruiting capable women from both civilian life and the military; Virginia Hall (Thomas), an American recruit with a prosthetic leg (that she famously named Cuthbert) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a pacifist princess, born to an Indian father and Russian mother.
Thomas’ script interestingly focuses on the nascent years of the SOE, when agents were still struggling to find ground (literally and metaphorically) to establish safe contacts. Weak infrastructure and poor safety standards at the time only made the spies’ lives more difficult over and above the constant insecurity of one’s own wellbeing.
Perpetually on the move, squatting in safe houses to send illegal signals that may be picked up by German authorities at any time, these agents signed up for more than their capabilities. Their only hope for dignity — a vial of cyanide as their last resort, a better end (we are told) than what the Gestapo would provide them.
All three women fight their personal battles amidst their ongoing resistance in the war. Virginia deals with constant condescension and rejection when she tries applying for a diplomat’s position, owing to her physical disability. Even on her recruitment and obvious adeptness as a secret agent, she faces skeptical glares from the men around her, “She wears a wooden leg for god’s sake.”
Noor’s struggle is more internal. A pacifist by faith, her dilemma is twofold. Her job demands complete surrender to violence, and that too with a clear conscience.
Vera’s steadfast loyalty towards the SOE is intermittently questioned by the xenophobic bosses, a narrative thread that Thomas deftly uses to show that the film does not let Britain’s anti-Semitism go unindicted.
Its honest intentions aside, A Call to Spy leaves viewers unsatiated at multiple junctures. Since it chooses to stay away from German military action, for the most part, the film ought to have had gripping storylines on the SOE front. The women do forge ahead, and carve deserved screen space for themselves, but fail on the dramatic quotient. The edgy aspect of an undercover agent’s life is lost beneath layers of antiquity-settings and slow-paced dialogues.
It is obvious that meticulous care went behind the production design (Kim Jennings) and set decoration (Alexander Linde), but both the efforts fall flat in light of the tepid script.
Vanessa Porter’s costumes deserve a special mention, especially the way she chooses to dress the three female leads in signature trousseaus, which speak articulately of their personas. While Apte’s Noor dons sedate browns and blue, often coupled with a respectable hat to call focus to her calm nature, both Vera and Virginia wear bold reds and mustards, a sign of their in-your-face rebellion.
Despite their exterior precision, Thomas’ characters lack interior depth. Virginia, Noor, and Vera waltz past the two-hour span without much investment from the audiences’ end.
The film, as a whole, and in its character development, in particular, lacks thorough research. For a historical period that abounds in documented literature, A Call to Spy fails to add value.
Unlike BBC’s limited series World on Fire, also focusing on a largely British point of view, A Call to Spy is unable to provide an immersive experience of WWII. Robby Baumgartner and Miles Goodall’s lens captures the bleak and ominous wide angles and long shots, but that is never enough for the tragedy to truly kick in.
A significant portion of the women’s life is provided as end-credit information to viewers, leaving us wanting these references within the timeframe of the film. Thus, A Call to Spy scratches merely the surface of a cauldron that promises graver horrors told powerfully.
A Call to Spy will stream on Amazon Prime Video India from 11 December.
(All images from Amazon Prime Video)
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