Still, given the potential of the material, there’s no excuse for the dullness of A Call To Spy, a film as clumsy as its title. While the first-time director Lydia Dean Pilcher has worked for decades as a producer, she doesn’t seem to have much practical sense of what constitutes drama. Nor does she get much help from screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas, who also stars as Hall: Thomas reportedly researched this script for years, and it shows in all the wrong ways.
In other words, the conventions of genre cinema are set aside: spectacle is minimised, but so is exploration of the psychological costs of putting on an act. Instead, the emphasis is on a copybook feminism which implies these women should be remembered as pioneers, whether or not female spies were all that much of a novelty even then.
The plucky, never-say-die spirit which the film celebrates is embodied by a third protagonist taken from life, intelligence officer Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) – a stylish figure who smokes briskly, talks back to her patronising male bosses, and generally resembles the more glamorous sort of fictional headmistress.
For the sake of narrative convenience, Atkins is portrayed as personally recruiting both the stoic Hall and the younger, more vulnerable Khan, at around the same moment. Her two protegees arrive in France roughly 40 minutes into the film, which from that point on cuts back and forth between them, though without conveying much sense of mounting excitement or purpose.
Things happen one after another, in roughly the order the historical record says they did – and the pacing has a plodding telemovie consistency, with few scenes lasting more than a minute or two. Most of the action consists of conversations in dimly lit interiors, with background detail often blurred in a manner perhaps necessitated by the low budget (the locations were mainly in Philadelphia, of all places, with some exteriors in Budapest).
For a film about subterfuge, the oddest thing is the blatancy of it all. Thomas’ performance in particular has its share of what is sometimes called “indicating”: when her character is supposed to be worried, she conscientiously assumes a worried look. As a writer, she’s similarly averse to subtext, presuming that the easiest way to tell us what the characters are thinking is to have them announce it out loud.
The problem is that if you can’t manage emotional realism, mere historical accuracy seems beside the point. While A Call To Spy is too restrained to qualify as full-blown camp, there are occasional moments of inadvertent self-parody, mostly when the actors are given lines it’s hard to imagine anybody saying in life.
One example goes to Katic, late in the piece: “This war has left no one unscathed.” But the most shameless bits of forced exposition belong to Linus Roache as Atkins’ pompous superior, whose plonking delivery sometimes recalls the TV comic David Mitchell: “My previous job at a French motor company certainly didn’t prepare me for this.”