My go-to television contrarian take for the last decade or so has been an insistence that Stana Katic more or less kept a mediocre show called Castle afloat while her more heralded co-star mugged and chugged away. Unfortunately, Absentia, Katic’s follow-up, leaned a little too heavy on its woman-gets-tortured plot. I couldn’t get past the pilot. I remained hopeful that Katic would eventually find better vehicles before she became too typecast.
In A Call to Spy, Lydia Dean Pilcher’s new historical drama, Katic aptly fills the role of Vera Atkins, a woman whose job it is to build a network of female spies working in occupied France during World War II. It’s a nice role, albeit a supporting one, and she continues to elevate the projects she appears in.
The star here is actually Sarah Megan Thomas who plays Virginia Hall, an American rejected by the foreign service and ultimately recruited by Atkins. Thomas has a wooden leg, and she lives in an age where “ableism” may as well be a science-fiction concept. Radhika Apte also contributes as an Indian Muslim (Noor Inyat Khan) who becomes a wireless operator for the Allies. Linus Roache has a small part as Maurice Buckmaster. His role appears to be to remind us that although the women are doing the heavy lifting, their era insisted the man be in charge.
A Call to Spy is an enjoyable and informative film. If my enthusiasm is slightly muted, it is because the film’s storytelling lacks imagination and ambition. Early scenes telegraph later scenes, such as when the women are trained how to kill with a knife. It’s probably not fair to blame Thomas completely for script limitations. (The star also wrote the screenplay.) It is probably the case that Hollywood is still reluctant to back female-driven movies with the kind of capital needed to give stories this large and complex their due. There’s enough material here for three movies, and I wanted more scope and ambition in the way they were presented. The script follows the various story lines in a way more reminiscent of television, and thus it never digs as deeply as I wanted.
The way the film skims the surface of the plot also robs the climaxes of some of their emotional impact. Some — but not all. It’s impossible during these politically divided times not to be struck by how often and frequently in our history those who have been marginalized by their culture have striven and sacrificed for the betterment of all.
Kudos to IFC for picking up the film and also for releasing it simultaneously in theaters and on demand so that those of us in places where theaters are still closed can see the film.
A Call to Spy opens October 2.