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New Release Review [Cinema/Digital] - A CALL TO SPY

a call to spy review
In WWII, two women are recruited as spies for the British.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Lydia Dean Pilcher

Starring: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache

a call to spy poster

For all those whose cinematic female spy shenanigans jones has been left hanging by Disney’s rescheduling of Black Widow, sneaking in from the shadows is real-life undercover drama A Call to Spy. Written by and starring Sarah Megan Thomas, and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, A Call to Spy tells the story of female WWII spies - i.e., clever, able but otherwise ordinary citizens who are pulled into the war effort by Churchill’s SOE initiative purely because of the perceived unlikeliness of a person with a vagina being a spook - who are initiated, trained and, eventually, left to sacrifice themselves for the resistance.

This isn’t a spoiler: based upon the real lives of soldiers Virginia Hall (Thomas) and Noor Inayat-Khan (Radhika Apte - the most beautiful name I think I have ever typed), this is a story which abides to historical accuracy and features barely trained people behind enemy lines in Vichy France. Fatal outcomes are inevitable. As Hall is informed by her superiors from their comfortable drawing room office, the chances of surviving her mission is 50% at best...

a call to spy review

One of said superiors is hero Vera Atkins, played here by Stana Katic. Katic plays Atkins with a jaded, stiff upper lip expression, and she always has a fag on, which is duly held at a sharp angle. These Americans and Canadians putting on cut glass British accents, along with the familiar iconography of war films, makes for some warm, even campy, fun in A Call to Spy’s first half. There is rump-a-pump-a military music set to a training montage, German officers who SHOUT every word, and, in the boardrooms, upper-class signifiers of waistcoats, reserve and amber liquid in crystal glasses.


This is a Sunday afternoon treasure trove of a film, as familiar and comforting as warm bread. However, A Call to Spy’s narrative also incorporates an element of the global conflict that war films of the ilk outlined above often overlook: the contribution and might of the Indian army, and the support of the Muslim League. I mean, even prick Churchill took this utterly vital input for granted when he refused emergency food relief to 1943’s Bengali famine (will offer: ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Won’t offer: food to starving foreigners. Cue Gary Oldman spitting and chewing scenery).

a call to spy review

Although A Call to Spy cannot redress this representational imbalance, it does retell the essential story of Noor Inayat-Khan, a Russian/American Muslim whose dad was a leader of the Sufi Order. Inayat-Khan was the first female wireless operator to be sent into occupied France during the Second World War. Played by Apte, she is the gravity and moral centre of Thomas and Pilcher’s film. And morality is important when it comes to cinematic depictions of real-life conflict. Due to the medium’s influence upon and involvement with World War II, from the indispensable newsreel footage and the propaganda films of the very era to how recurrent the World War II films have been in the ensuing decades, within this symbiotic dynamic it is crucial that film makers do their best to be honest and true with this material. I mean, we’ll allow things like Tarantino for their fable-like idiosyncrasies (so magnanimous of me, I know), but when a film is purporting to be based on the actuality of war then there is an ethical imperative involved in the stories we tell ourselves, portrayals which can and do shape our popular understanding of what happened.


At the time of writing, the bloated Brexit white male rent-a-crowd are currently swilling their lagers and swearing their dense, empty little hearts out about how wearing a mask is an infringement of "ar civil liberties." You know the ones, the thick as pigshit, scared little bullies who weep about the imprisonment of "ar Tommy" (Robinson - not even his real name hahahaha), hiding their lazy hatred and slothful sense of entitlement behind bogus notions of nationalism and liberty (see the twitter feed ‘imagine this was your dad’ for further information). You fucking pieces of shit. What did you ever do? What have you ever done in your life for your country, for the people you claim to be ‘protecting’ from fictional foreign threat? Nothing. Yet women like Inayat-Khan died so you could mouth off in Trafalgar Square about how wearing a mask is "like The Hunger Games" (I’m not making this up).

a call to spy review

A Call to Spy is not necessarily a great film - the first half is a little slow, and (although this pleased me greatly, it is surely not intentional) at points the performances reminded me of Ben Willbond’s peerless Captain in BBC’s Ghosts. However, it is a pretty good film, especially in the growing tensions of the final act. Ultimately though, A Call to Spy is an important film, existing to tell a story that should be reiterated and remembered: that, yes, the war was fought on the beaches, but also in many different and dangerous other ways, too, and by brave and diverse people. An end credit informs us that one in three British spies sent to help the French Resistance did not return home.

A Call to Spy is in UK cinemas and on Digital from October 23rd.

2020 movie reviews