The Movie Guru: ‘A Call to Spy’ tells story of three women who worked as spies during WWII
The Movie Guru
Does a movie get credit for a good story if it tells that story badly?
That’s the problem with “A Call to Spy,” which opens on digital and cable video-on-demand platforms Oct. 2. The movie tries to do a good thing by telling the stories of three women who worked as spies during World War II, all of whom were brave and smart enough to deserve their own movie. However, the movie also manages to suck nearly all the life and interest out of each of their stories, to the point that you’ll have a more interesting, emotionally fulfilling experience looking them all up on Wikipedia.
“A Call to Spy” focuses on three women who worked as spies during WWII — Virginia Hall, who didn’t let a wooden leg stop her from dangerous adventures; Noor Inayat Khan, the first female wireless operator sent from the U.K. to help the French resistance; and Vera Atkins, the intelligence agent who helped oversee the France section of the SOE during WWII. Hall and Khan are recruited and sent into Nazi-occupied France to get valuable information, while Atkins stays back in England to coordinate their efforts and keep the program together in the face of overwhelming pressure.
There are some positive reviews for the movie circulating online, but a good portion of their praise focuses on the stories the movie is retelling. Those stories are absolutely worth the time and attention — the lives of these three women are actually more interesting and heartbreaking than you see onscreen, enough to capture your attention for hours without the need of any fictional flourishes. It’s a crime more people don’t know about them, and I can totally understand why Sarah Megan Thomas fought so hard to get their story to the screen.
The problem is that the movie retells their stories in a flat, lifeless way. The fact that all three are crammed into the same movie means that none of their stories are told with the kind of depth and attention they need. Worse, the parts that are told aren’t nearly as interesting as the reality was, with their exploits made smaller and more simplistic in order to fit in with the framework they created. Some of this was no doubt a budgetary issue, which I understand, while others feel like the fault of a badly arranged script. We’re often told about Hall’s cleverness, but we rarely get the chance to see it.
The acting, in large part, doesn’t help matters. Thomas portrays Hall with all the even-toned seriousness of someone doing a historical re-enactment, while Stana Katic puts on a tough-girl act for Atkins that she rarely if ever bothers to vary. Radhika Apte offers the most emotional nuance as Khan, but since the movie basically turns her into Hall’s sidekick (the two never worked together in real life) she doesn’t get nearly enough of an opportunity to use it.
The stories of all three women are definitely worth hearing, and I encourage everyone to go seek out as many articles and documentaries about them as you can (Google is a great place to start). The versions found in “A Call to Spy,” however, can be safely skipped.
‘A Call to Spy’
- Rated: PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, language, and smoking
- Written by: Sarah Megan Thomas
- Directed by: Lydia Dean Pilcher
- Starring: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins and more
- Grade: One and a half stars (out of four)
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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