We’ve heard and read about the female agents that braved the Nazis in occupied Europe with many paying the ultimate price. But there has been precious scant attention paid to these brave women on film. That’s beginning to change with A Call to Spy.
Although the film had been released just about only two months ago, we first came across it while digging for a story on Vera Atkins, one of the main characters portrayed in the film.
A Call to Spy was directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas. The film examines the extraordinary stories of Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins, and Noor Inayat Khan. These women answered the call issued by the U.K. government and put their lives on the line for the war effort.
After the Nazis swept across Western Europe in the early days of World War II, the Brits stood alone, before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and foolishly declared war on the United States. In the early summer of 1940, Winston Churchill put out the recruitment call for the British intelligence services, as there was little usable information coming out of the occupied countries, especially France.
That’s when the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was born. It was placed under the auspices of Hugh Dalton the Minister of Economic Warfare. Its mission was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe, and to aid local resistance movements against the Nazis.
SOE was also known by several pseudonyms, including the “Baker Street Irregulars,” (Baker Street being the location of its London headquarters), “Churchill’s Secret Army,” or, the most widely used, “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”
Increasingly, the British started using women, first as couriers, as they’d be less conspicuous in occupied France, but also as agents and wireless operators.
Therefore, Atkins is tasked with recruiting female agents by her boss Maurice Buckmaster who’s played in the film by Linus Roache of Law and Order fame. Atkins is excellently played by the talented Stana Katic, who also played in Absentia.
Atkins is a fascinating character. She was a Romanian-born Jew. In wartime Britain, the higher-ups in the military distrusted her and refused to even grant her citizenship despite her role in finding the right women for the cause. She and Buckmaster have to learn on the fly and they make plenty of mistakes along the way with terrible consequences.
Interestingly, Atkins was supposedly the woman whom Ian Fleming based Miss Moneypenny on — one of his famous James Bond characters.
The American Virginia Hall is played by Thomas herself who gives an excellent — if understated — performance. After losing her lower leg in a hunting accident, Hall was denied a chance to be a diplomat because of her disability. She even wrote a letter to FDR in protest.
The British were also reluctant, at first, to use Hall. Yet, they quickly learned that sending her into occupied France was a brilliant decision. Hall quickly showed a natural gift for organizing, training, and leading resistance forces.
She became a target of none other than Klaus Barbie, “The Butcher of Lyon” who characterized her as the most dangerous agent in France. “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that limping Canadian bitch,” Barbie had said erroneously believing that Hall wasn’t American.
The third female agent in the film is Noor Inayat Khan, who is brilliantly portrayed by Radhika Apte. Khan was an actual princess, born of Indian and Russian parents. She’s a character with contrasts as she’s a pacifist but also feels compelled to help with the war effort. Khan was a particularly skilled wireless operator, a specialty that was in very short supply. The job of wireless operators was not easy. Knowing that the Nazis had sophisticated radio direction finding equipment, the operators had to rely on directional antennas and on changing their location to avoid being caught.
Hall is hunted and eventually has to make her way across the Pyrenees to Portugal and finally to England. Noor is caught while trying to shuttle between safe houses and is given up by a French civilian to the Gestapo. She is tortured and beaten but refuses to give them any information. She is eventually sent to a concentration camp and executed.
The film suffers in some aspects. The character development of each of these extraordinary women operatives deserves a much deeper dive than it receives in the film, as their stories are all amazing. A Call to Spy could have been a really compelling mini-series rather than a two-hour film. Yet, the script keeps the action and suspense moving along very quickly.
A Call to Spy is a very worthwhile film and we finally get to see some of these intriguing operatives on screen, something that was well overdue.
You can watch A Call to Spy’s trailer here.
The film is available for rental on Amazon Prime.
“Get used to lady spies.”
— SOE training officer to whining male intelligence agents