Friday, October 02, 2020

A Call to Spy: The Brave Women of Churchill’s SOE

One out of every three British SOE agents smuggled into France was killed by Germans or their Vichy collaborators. To reward them for their service, newly elected Labour PM Clement Atlee sacked the entire agency 48 hours after taking office. Women agents faired just about the same. 13 of Vera Atkins’ 39 “special recruits” never returned from occupied France either. Yet, their service and sacrifices were quite remarkable. The true stories of Atkins and her two most celebrated agents, Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan are told in Lydia Dean Pilcher’s A Call to Spy, which opens today in select theaters and on VOD.

Clandestine warfare was going badly for Britain, like everything else during the early stages of WWII. It was the job of Col. Maurice Buckmaster and his civilian colleague, Vera Atkins, to change that. They were in charge of training and strategy for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Despite Atkins’ protests, they initially only recruited men, but their hidebound superiors relented as SOE casualties mounted. As a Romanian immigrant of Jewish descent, the war was particularly personal for Atkins, but it also made her a figure of suspicion for many of her less enlightened colleagues.

Hall and Khan had one advantage. Neither of them fit the profile of a likely spy. Hall was an American, who relied on a prosthetic leg. Khan was born in Russia to an Indian Muslim father, who was revered teacher of Sufism (which actually meant they were quite moderate and tolerant). Hall proved to be a gifted organizer, who built an extensive network throughout Vichy, whereas Khan had what was considered the most dangerous assignment in France. She was one of several “wireless” operators, who were constantly tracked and triangulated by the Gestapo—and also rather conspicuous, since they were tethered to their bulky radios.

If Noor Khan sounds familiar, perhaps you saw the PBS profile,
An Enemy of the Reich, which aired six years ago. She was definitely a heroic woman, but there is more to Hall’s exploits, for unfortunate reasons you should be able to guess. In fact, it is truly criminal Hall is not widely celebrated in our history books. After the SOE extracted her from France, she returned with the American OSS and then served with Central Intelligence during the Cold War—so remember her service next time a Hollywood film denigrates the CIA.

Screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas is terrific as Hall, portraying her with the sort of resolute steeliness to rouse our spirits and sufficient vulnerability to be credible. She and Rossif Sutherland (playing her early contact, Dr. Chevain) also display the right hinted-at chemistry that they cannot pursue, given the dire circumstances. The expressive Radhika Apte is often utterly devastating as Khan, even though she is largely stuck playing the martyr role. Likewise, Laila Robbins has some fine moments as Khan’s American mother, Pirani. Yet, Stana Katic’s smart, professional, but duly conflicted portrayal of Atkins is the glue that holds it all together.

Pilcher nicely conveys the oppressive atmosphere of occupied France and steadily builds the paranoid tension. We definitely feel Hall or Khan could be betrayed at any moment because they could have been—and sometimes were. This is a very compelling film that reminds us of all the sacrifices intelligence agents have made for our country (and our UK ally). Very highly recommended,
A Call to Spy opens today (10/2), to some degree in theaters, but still largely VOD.