In August 1941, as World War II wages on, Winston Churchill decides to create a new secret army of spies called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The goal is to place spies everywhere behind enemy lines, to help build the resistance and sabotage the Nazi war machine’s attempt to spread misinformation. However, both those running this new agency and their new recruits don’t really have much espionage experience, if any. Highly trained and experienced agents are getting more and more difficult to come by, and so the war effort must explore new untapped sources, such as women. Those in charge jokingly refer to this new training effort as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Heading up the effort to recruit new female spies is Ms. Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), a Russian Jew whose official title is that of secretary, reporting to Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache), a former corporate manager with the French branch of the Ford Motor Company who now finds himself thrust into this new world as head of the SOE. Ms. Atkins focuses her efforts on finding unconventional women, who would be less suspicious when they head behind enemy lines. Her new agents are to be sent into the unoccupied areas of France, to report back on what life is really like for those in these areas, and also beef up the resistance effort. Two of her most promising (and most unusual) recruits are an American with a wooden leg, and a Muslim pacifist.
Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) works at the US Embassy in London. Before the war, she had spent some time driving an ambulance in France. She dreams of being a diplomat, but her applications are always rejected due to her disability. Vera sends Virginia into France, posing as an American Journalist working for the New York Post, so that she can help recruit new resistance members, and support those already there. Even though Virginia is located in an unoccupied area of France, Vera warns her that Nazi sympathizers are everywhere, and that she will need to be extremely careful who she trusts. Meanwhile, Noor (Radhika Apte) is a Muslim pacifist and princess, born to an American mother (Laila Robins, The Blacklist) and a royal Indian father. She is a British citizen who grew up in France, and is a very skilled wireless operator. The task of the wireless operator is extremely dangerous but also vital in order to get information to and from agents in the field. Noor is the first female wireless operator to be dropped behind enemy lines. Due to the fact that the Nazis can trace the wireless signals, Noor will need to be constantly on the move, finding new safehouses to stay at almost daily. It is an extremely dangerous mission, but Noor would do anything to support her country.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Vera has her own issues to deal with. Even though she is a proven leader at running this whole female recruiting operation, Vera is officially just a secretary, and not even a citizen. She has applied for British citizenship, but fears that she could be deported at any time, and sent back into the arms of the same enemy she is trying to fight. She also fears that without citizenship, all of her intelligence efforts could be called into question. However, Vera doesn’t let these issues distract her from the mission at hand, as she continues to recruit and train new women, and works to ensure that those behind enemy lines get the information and resources they need. Putting their lives on the line, these women will play an important role in stopping the Nazi forces and changing the course of history…though theirs is a story you don’t often see mentioned in the history books.
A Call to Spy is a tense, entertaining period drama that transports the viewer back nearly 80 years, to a very different era, in the midst of one of our planet’s most important wars. The film has lots of mystery, intrigue and drama as the characters never know who they can trust, and what danger awaits them around every corner. These women haven’t had extensive training or experience, and must learn to adapt and think on the fly if they want to stay alive, and keep the Nazis from seizing power. The film primarily focuses on the lives of these three strong women who ended up playing a vital role in the Allied success during the war. The writers have done a great job of fleshing out the characters, giving the viewer a sense of their backgrounds and motivations, exploring their lighter sides, as well as showing their strength and determination under unimaginable pressure.
A large portion of the movie follows Virginia, who is working under the codename Brigitte. After her brief training she is thrust behind enemy lines to help recruit and support the resistance effort. She quickly realizes she has a knack for this work, and even those back in London are impressed by her quick thinking and ingenuity. While some of the male spies may have second-guessed her abilities during training, they now realize that she is a born leader, and a great asset. Her efforts to disrupt the Nazi war machine also don’t go unnoticed by Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann), who orders a manhunt for this mysterious woman with a limp who is causing so much trouble for him and his men. Producer/writer/star Sarah Megan Thomas delivers both an interesting and captivating story, while also giving a really strong and emotional performance in this lead role. Virginia has been doubted all her life due to her disability, but she never let it stop her from pursuing and fighting for her dreams. Early on in the film when Virginia receives her latest rejection, we even see her writing a letter to Churchill directly to appeal her case.
When not exploring Virginia’s spy adventures, the film follows the other two main female characters. Before Noor heads off into war, she must first explain to her disappointed and nervous mother why a pacifist feels the need to participate in the war effort and put her life on the line. Once she heads to France, Noor’s life takes a drastic turn. She finds herself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, always trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis as they try to track her wireless signal to put a stop to her efforts. This leads to some really tense moments as Noor moves from one deadly situation to the next. Radhika Apte is a delight in this role. While her character initially starts off as a meek young woman, she transforms into this strong, confident person who will never cave or give up.
While Vera is not behind enemy lines, she has her own battle on the home front. She is a secretary in name only—her contributions to the war effort are far bigger and more important than her title implies. She feels underappreciated, especially given the lack of approval for her citizenship, and she talks about this heartbreaking situation with her mother. While she may not be behind enemy lines, Vera still finds herself fighting on two fronts, not only trying to support her spies in battle, but also to fight for her own recognition and rights. It was initially a bit odd hearing Stana Katic talk with an accent (I’ve primarily only seen her in Castle), but she does an excellent job of selling this character and her personal plight.
While the film does have some humorous moments early on as we first meet the women and hear their stories, the movie also doesn’t shy away from exploring the grim realities of this war. At the same time, A Call to Spy is an inspirational tale of the noble spirit and courage of these unconventional soldiers, and their willingness to put everything on the line to help fight for freedom and justice for all.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds amazing. The picture is so crisp and clean, transporting the viewer back 80 years with elaborate sets and costumes that look and feel so authentic. The color palette is more muted with earthy tones, capturing the dire and desolate atmosphere of France at the time. The level of detail is excellent, enhancing the textures in buildings, clothing and faces. The audio track makes really nice use of the stereo and surround channels to give the viewer a more immersive experience, whether it’s the sound of a rainy downpour, or just the general chatter in the embassy, there is always this full ambiance of sound to the scenes. The period score is also fantastic, helping to evoke the proper emotion, whether that’s one of joy, inspiration, dread or sadness. The Blu-ray contains just one short 3-miniute behind-the-scenes featurette with the cast, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. The disc comes packed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a slipcover, but no digital copy is included. The insert in the case is reversible, allowing the viewer another way to display the disc in their collection. The alternate option is shown below.
- 1080p / Widescreen 1.85:1
- Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo, English Descriptive Audio Track
- Subtitles: English SDH
- Behind-The-Scenes Featurette (3:28)
The cast members discuss the story, the characters and the remarkable real women behind them, and shooting in Pennsylvania for London and Budapest for France. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with producer/writer/star Sarah Megan Thomas (“Virginia Hall”), and actors Radhika Apte (“Noor Inayat Khan”), Stana Katic (“Vera Atkins”), Linus Roache (“Maurice Buckmaster”) & Rossif Sutherland (“Dr. Chevain”).
- Theatrical Trailer (2:22)
A Call to Spy is a tense, entertaining and captivating period drama that transports the viewer back to a different era to explore the lives and efforts of three remarkable women who were part of a secret army of spies that helped the Allies win the war. It is a remarkable story that I had never heard anything about before. Lead actress/writer Sarah Megan Thomas does an excellent job of bringing her character to life, as do the rest of the film’s solid cast. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds great, but is a bit lacking when it comes to bonus material, including just a single short behind-the-scenes featurette. That said, the Blu-ray still comes recommended based on the quality of the film itself.