A Call to Spy (2019)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Lydia Dean Pilcher
Run Time
2 hours and 3 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Noor & Virginia (top upper lft & rt) during their training sessions.  (c) IFC Films

This thrilling WW 2 spy drama is a true story about women, directed by a woman, Lydia Dean Pilcher, from a script by a woman, Sarah Megan Thomas. Like with the NASA film about Black women mathematicians, this film brings forth the “hidden figures” who contributed so much to the Allied fight against the Nazis—and in too many cases, their lives.

The film begins with a waterboarding scene of a captured woman—but there is a twist to it. Then we switch to  just before the outbreak of WW II with Hitler’s brutal troops occupying most of the European continent.

Knowing that war was to come and that a direct knowledge of what was taking place in France was essential, Churchill approved the setting op of a new spy organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Despite the paternalism of some of the military, it was decided to recruit woman spies because they could move about in occupied territory more easily than men.

Col. Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) is put in charge, with Christopher (Samuel Roukin) as his immediate underling. Christopher brings with him his secretary Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jewish who had fled to London from her native Romania. She turns out to be so talented that she becomes his associate, though retaining a secretary’s status and salary. Fortunately, he realizes this and treats her as a colleague when she recruits suitable candidates. Their recruits are to engage in what is called “ungentlemanly warfare,” sabotage, subversion, resistance and the transmission of important data about the enemy.

Despite their training, the spies sent over rarely last more than six weeks before being picked up by the Gestapo. After one such disaster, we hear this exchange:

Christopher : I, uh, told the gentleman’s parents it was a car crash, no survivors. They were only there six weeks… Well, the Germans are locating our signals faster than anticipated, and there was a slip-up. One of the agents was carrying British cigarettes.

Col. Maurice Buckmaster : We’re all such bloody amateurs.

At a party Vera meets Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an ambitious American who has lived in Europe for several years in the hope of becoming a diplomat. However, she has lost a leg in a hunting accident and has been rejected because of her wooden leg. She is one of two recruits of Vera’s who turns out to be exceptionally talented during training in radio transmission. The second is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a Muslim pacifist who turns out to be a real Princess, born of Indian and Russian parents. Both women speak fluent French. Because of Hitler and his hated program she is willing to lay aside her pacifist beliefs and join the effort to defeat the Nazis.

During the training sequence Virginia and Noor are roommates, but do not get to know each other personally because they are forbidden to reveal to anyone their real names and background. Virginia introduces Noor to her wooden leg, which she has named “Cuthbert.” Posing as an American journalist, Virginia, is sent to Lyons Vichy France, where she contacts  Dr. Raul Chevain (Rossif Sutherland). Another agent, Alphonse (Andrew Richardson) is already on the ground as the wireless transmitter operator. Learning of a badly injured British soldier, Virginia arranges for a plane to pick him up at a secret field. In the meantime, she endures a tense moment with a policeman when she orders a gin at a café on a Sunday, ignorant that alcoholic beverages are forbidden on that day.

When the plane arrives to pick up the injured soldier, Noor is on it. Virginia works out a hiding place for the new arrival, recruits Resistance fighters, even parleying with the head of a nunnery for hiding places, and participates in a raid that blows up a Nazi train loaded with weapons and ammunition. For Noor, when a traitor informs on her, life becomes precarious because she goes into hiding on her own, eventually being transferred to Paris.

Virginia loses her cover when America enters the war in December 1941. She is given a new code name, Philemon, her physical appearance changed by a totally new hairdo. A Father Robert Alesche (Joe Doyle), famous for his anti-Nazi sermons, contacts the underground for help. At first regarded with suspicion, he is cleared by London, and comes into contact with Virginia and the other Resistance members. Virginia was one who did not trust him, and she and many others will come to regret his inclusion.

Back in London Vera faces her own problems when her Romanian Jewish identity is discovered and her application for citizenship is rejected. Buckminster assures her that she is so indispensable to the program that she will not be interned.

There are many exciting, and some tragic, incidents on the continent, with the women proving their mettle and great value in transmitting vital information to London. Winding up in Paris, Vera is so effective in her work that Nazi commander  Klaus Barbie (Marc Rissmann) arrives and takes a great interest in tracking down Philomen, whom in his rage he calls a “bitch.” How Virginia escapes but Noor does not is a mixed tale of triumph and sorrow. Virginia wants to return to France but is denied, working behind the lines instead, and Vera, after much protesting eventually receives her due in

This review is in the January 2024 issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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