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  Call to Spy, A Secret Agent Woman
Year: 2019
Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher
Stars: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissman, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace
Genre: War, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: The year is 1941 and the British forces are having to use every trick in the book to try to stay one step ahead of the Nazi powers; in Europe a network of spies is imperative, but they need to be trained and more importantly, many must not be so obvious, and able to blend into the background all the better to pull off sabotage. Back in London, Eastern European Jew Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) has been recruited to recruit other women to the cause in turn, and two of her choices have her superiors expressing scepticism. But American Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Russian-Indian Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) are actually perfect selections, for they will do plenty of good when placed in France to upset the Nazi war machine, at potentially terrible cost to themselves…

Producer/star Thomas was also responsible for the screenplay to A Call to Spy, which was an American take on a very European tale, the presence of an American lead character notwithstanding. Filmed largely in Pennsylvania, Lydia Dean Pilcher could not quite disguise the fact much of this was shot on non-British or French locations, and was yet another historical account from this era to use greyed or browned out photography to attempt to fashion an authentic appearance, which in this case was not quite as convincing as the production would have liked. Pilcher tried to get around this by keeping her camera in as tight to her cast as possible, which once you noticed it was plainly hiding anything that might have given this away as an American project: it didn't succeed.

Not helping was that it was broken-backed as a storyline, thanks to its twin focus on both Hall and Khan, two women who in reality never met and were operating as spies at different times. The script manufactured a friendship between them, yet this was so perfunctory that it was slightly insulting, especially when Thomas was so obviously far more interested in her role than that of Khan, as evinced by the way the latter was elbowed out of the movie by the increasing interest on the activities of Hall. Really, both women deserved a biopic each, not with one crowbarred into the narrative of the other which did little but expand the running time to over two hours in length: a neat ninety or even a hundred minutes at a push would have done justice to Hall, if it was the American the production was more fascinated by.

However that was not the sole issue, as a film this mostly resembled one of those television documentaries that insisted on presenting dramatizations of the events the narrator and interviewees were telling us about, rarely on a substantial budget and often with a CGI map or whatever to enhance the yarn. Except there were no narrators or experts, we were simply offered curiously muted, cramped representations of women who deserved a lot better: Khan was actually better served by a then-recent Doctor Who episode where she was portrayed, and that had mixed fictional villain The Master into her biography, not to universally admired effect, either. Maybe Thomas should have held out for more money in the coffers for a tribute that was sincere, certainly, but too limited in scope once it had all been put together: even a derring-do effort like France's all-star Female Agents would have been a more useful template, as A Call to Spy gingerly picked up important subjects - anti-Semitism, sexism, pacifism - and didn't know what to do with them. Not a dead loss, but a missed opportunity. Music by Lillie Rebecca McDonough.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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