Shortly after Germany’s conquest of France in 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed his intelligence services to send spies behind enemy lines. In a departure from past practices, women were recruited, supposedly because they were more inconspicuous than men.
A Call To Spy, a thriller now available on the Netflix streaming network, tells their story through the eyes of three very different women.
Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), a Romanian Jew, organizes the recruitment effort on behalf of her boss, a senior army officer. She’s a capable, efficient and empathic person who has a knack for spotting talent.
Two of her picks are Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas), an American hobbled by a wooden leg, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a Muslim pacifist whose father is a Sufi mystic. Having passed a rigorous training program in sabotage and survival, they’re ready to be dispatched on their mission.
Lydia Dean Pilcher’s feature film, which begins in occupied France in August 1941, underscores the dangers of this operation in the opening scene. One of the spies, having been captured by the Germans, is waterboarded to reveal her secrets.
Virginia, fluent in French, is the first newly-minted spy to be sent to France. Disguised as an American newspaper reporter, her task is to create an espionage hub in the city of Lyon. Her contact in Lyon, Chevau (Rossif Sutherland), is a physician with the French resistance movement.
Having settled into her job, she arranges for a wounded spy to be secretly airlifted to Britain. Later, she starts distributing money and weapons to agents in the field, and is part of a team plotting to derail a German train carrying a cargo of ammunition.
Tasked with informing her bosses about every important development on Lyon, Virginia sends back reports that Jewish residents are now required to register with the authorities, and that an antisemitic exhibit about the Jews of France has opened.
Noor is sent to France as a wireless operator. Like Virginia, she’s cautious and careful, but is almost caught by the French police.
Back in London,Vera complains that her application for British citizenship is being held up. When a double agent infiltrates the ranks of Virginia’s unit, she is blamed for the mishap. She assumes that the accusation is rooted in antisemitism.
Fast forwarding to 1942, the film ushers in the arrival of SS officer Klaus Barbie to Lyon. Barbie (Marc Rissmann), who will soon be known as the Butcher of Lyon, is frantically looking for Virginia. The Germans try to track her down after capturing one of the new British spies. Virginia, in the meantime, realizes she’s in peril and must leave France immediately.
A Call To Spy, taut and fast-paced, recounts a little-known footnote in the annals of World War II. The valorous women who risked their lives to be spies in France deserve every accolade. Pilcher’s movie serves as a tribute to their courageous exploits under fire.