In the movie Mary Poppins, painter/musician/chimney sweep Bert mentions that he knows a man with a wooden leg named Smith.
“What’s the name of his other leg?” Uncle Albert asks.
In World War II, Nazi Germany dealt with a woman with a wooden leg named Cuthbert. Her other leg, as far as we know, didn’t have a name. But the Germans would’ve given anything to find out.
Her own name’s Virginia Hall, and she’s an American. She lost her leg in a hunting accident. For years, she’d hoped to become a diplomat. But the United States didn’t believe diplomats could have wooden legs (no matter that its own president was often bound to a wheelchair because of polio), so Virginia left for London and worked as a clerk, still angling for something bigger.
She meets Vera Atkins by chance at a party in early 1941. Turns out, Vera’s recruiting women for an exclusive little “club,” as she calls it, within Britain’s fledgling secret service agency.
It just might be the most dangerous club in the world.
The German and Italians have already swept across most of Europe by now, and Adolf Hitler is ready to add Britain—his last real adversary in Europe—to his growing empire. Britain has a handful of spies in the field, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill is calling for many, many more. But agents behind enemy lines don’t seem to last long.
It’s no place for a woman, some British officers argue. And certainly not a woman with a wooden leg.
But Vera disagrees. Women, she says, are more likely to slip through Nazi fingers because they seem to pose less of a threat. And who would possibly be less threatening than limping Virginia?
Soon, Virginia—now codenamed Bridgett—is training for work in the field with a handful of other unlikely candidates. She rooms with one of them, known to her only as Madeline. If anyone would be a more unlikely spy than Virginia, it just might be her. Born in Russia to an American mother and an Indian father, Madeline (real name: Noor) looks small and fragile. Oh, and thanks to her Sufi beliefs, she’s a pacifist, too. But she can send coded messages quickly and reliably, and Vera believes she’ll be a crack agent if given the chance.
With the war going badly and with qualified agents falling like autumn leaves, Noor and Virginia will indeed get their chance. But will they have a chance to come back? In 1941, working as an enemy agent in occupied France is no joke. No joke at all.
This goes without saying, but it takes guts to take up espionage as a calling. Those who do so embark on an incredibly dangerous career path—one which British Col. James Buckmaster believes they’ll have a 50-50 chance of surviving. Undeterred, both Virginia and Noor show they have the courage, resourcefulness and just plain moxie to do the job.
Virginia especially impresses her handlers back home with her creativity—solving problems on the fly and wriggling past Nazis. But Noor, actually, may have the more difficult job: As a wireless operator, she must tote around a heavy communications setup in a suitcase. If anyone opened that suitcase for any reason, her gig would be up. Oh, and the thing makes it awfully hard to run away from Nazi soldiers, too.
Moreover, these women serve out of conviction: Noor, despite her pacifist leanings, is determined to do what she can to stop Hitler’s ambitions. Virginia feels the same, and she’s passionately protective of her fellow spies, who rely on her for help and protection.
But let’s not overlook the folks back home. Vera’s confident in the female spies she has selected, as unlikely as they might look. And she protects them as much as she’s able, both from enemies abroad and doubters back home. Col. Buckmaster, meanwhile, does his best to support Vera. She’s officially “just” a secretary, and her Jewish/Romanian lineage would make her loyalty suspect to some. But Buckmaster knows all about Vera’s intelligence and skill, and he does what he can to give her as much freedom and authority as possible—even if it’s a bit unofficial.
We see plenty of other spies and civilians show tremendous courage under the worst of conditions. Some of these agents are imprisoned, tortured and even killed—sacrificing everything for a cause they feel is worthy of that sacrifice.
During training, Virginia tells Noor about her wooden leg, and why she named it Cuthbert. “St. Cuthbert was a soldier and healer,” she says. “A performer of miracles.” It’s not the last time Virginia speaks of miracles here (though the next time she mentions them, she wearily suggests they don’t really happen), and the movie suggests that Cuthbert carries Virginia to a miracle of her own. (Skeptics might argue that the only miracle was found in Virginia’s strength of will.) We see Virginia looking as though she’s praying at one point.
Noor, meanwhile, tells Vera that her father had seen a lot of miracles in a lifetime. He was a Sufi, a mystical branch of Islam that prizes “peace and truth.” She follows her father’s beliefs, and she and others pass on a saying credited to the Sufi poet Rumi: “Don’t you know yet? It’s your light that lights the world.”
We see evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism, particularly in the form of an “exposition” that is designed to foster hatred and suspicion of Jews in France. (We don’t witness the exposition itself; but some vile posters advertise it, and people wind around the block to get in.) But anti-Semitism is a force in Britain as well. “We certainly don’t need any more Jews here,” a British officer says at a party as a few listeners laugh. And Vera feels as if she needs to hide her own Jewish heritage in order to have a shot at British citizenship.
A nunnery serves as an important safe house for Allied spies—a relationship that Virginia creates through persistence and some extra food coupons. A Catholic priest, known as Alfonse, preaches against the power of Adolf Hitler on a street corner. He’s widely known for his anti-Nazi leanings, and he later comes looking for “Bridgett” because he’s looking for help for his own underground Allied network. And when help is given, he says that God has “listened to my prayers.”
[Spoiler Warning] Virginia is initially suspicious of Alfonse, and with good reason. The priest winds up being a double agent, and a scene with him receiving payment from a Nazi officer seems designed to remind us of Judas taking his 30 pieces of silver.
A priest, we learn, keeps two mistresses in Paris. Noor travels to a safe house that seems to be mainly a house of ill-repute. (It’s not called such, but some women stand in front of the door in somewhat loose dresses, with one exposing her leg rather provocatively for the time.)
When Virginia and Vera first meet, Vera asks why Virginia’s not married. “Why aren’t you?” Virginia counters. Vera tells Virginia that she has a “missing friend,” apparently a soldier lost in action. Virginia says she did have a fellow. But when she lost her leg, her beau “didn’t think it was terribly romantic.”
We’re taken inside Nazi prisons and concentration camps, where the film suggests some awful goings on. The faces of prisoners are often bruised and bloodied, and we can hear agonized screams through the halls.
We see some explicit torture, too: One man has his hands forced into scalding water. Then, when the man still won’t divulge secrets, a German soldier grasps the man’s head and pushes his thumb against the man’s eyelid. We don’t see what happens, but the screams perhaps indicate the awfulness of what comes next. A woman’s head is repeatedly forced into a bucket filled with cold water (a form of waterboarding), and she’s slapped once across the face.
Two people are executed by being shot in the back of the head or neck. (We see, at a distance, the body of once such victim, the man’s head haloed in blood.) An assailant draws a knife across a man’s belly, drawing blood. (He’s later stabbed as a coup de grâce.) Corpses are seen lying beside a bridge. A man is hung as a warning to anyone who’d help a spy. (We don’t see the execution, just the body dangling from the rope.)
Virginia’s first challenge is to get an injured fellow agent out of the country. (His leg is bound and bloody.) In flashback, we see hints of Virginia’s hunting accident that cost the young woman her leg: She accidentally shot herself with her father’s lucky shotgun, and gangrene set in. A railroad track is blown up. People run away from Nazis. We hear reports of people dying and disappearing. A slide near the credits tells us that about a third of Allied spies gave their lives during the war.
One s-word and a smattering of other profanities, including “b–ch,” “b–tard” and “h—.” The most popular curse word, though, is the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused six times—half of those with the word “d–n”—and Jesus’ name is abused four times.
Virginia likes her booze. She claims to have had too much gin during the party where she originally meets Vera. And when Vera conducts a follow-up meeting with the prospective spy and offers her tea or Scotch, Virginia doesn’t hesitate: “Scotch,” she says. She orders a drink when she first arrives under cover in France, as well—something that nearly gets her into trouble. (A suspicious policeman tells her that it’s now illegal to order alcoholic beverages on a Sunday.) She and others drink wine, whiskey and brandy throughout the movie.
Virginia’s also given two packets of pills before heading to France, too. One, she’s told, will help her to stay alert and also deal with pain. (The pain of wearing the wooden leg all the time, it’s suggested, and she takes more and more of those pills as the movie wears on, despite Vera warning her that taking too much can be problematic.) The other pills are cyanide tablets. (“A more dignified end than the gestapo will give you,” Vera tells her.)
Vera, Virginia and others smoke quite a bit. We learn that one British agent was apparently killed by the Nazis because he was carrying a British brand of cigarettes.
We see people discriminate (or attempt to discriminate) based on gender, ethnicity and nationality. Virginia and her other fellow spies lie a lot, technically speaking, because that’s what spies do.
String together the words “British,” “female” and “spy,” and many people will translate that combination as “Bond girl.” You know, the often scantily-attired ladies in James Bond movies, some of whose only experience in going under cover is under 007’s sheets.
A Call to Spy seeks to correct that vision a bit, shining a light on Britain’s first shadowy female agents.
The spies we meet in this film are, indeed, based on real-life people, and many of the exploits we see here are real, too. Yes, Virginia Hall really did have a wooden leg named Cuthbert—a leg that was later given the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. (Few prostheses have been so decorated.)
That medal draws our attention to another interesting wrinkle in the film: Yes, all these agents worked for Great Britain during the war, but it’s a multinational, multicultural effort all the same. Virginia was American. Noor, a Muslim, signed up in part to help “bridge the gap” between the English and Indian parts of the British Empire. Even Vera, who looks as English as English gets, must deal with slights and suspicion because of her Jewish and Romanian background.
“I was compelled by the challenge of portraying the journey of these women in a way that could show how the very existence of national and ethnic differences can stimulate deeper humanitarian connection,” director Lydia Dean Pilcher told Women and Hollywood. “I really felt history was beckoning us to unsilence the voices of these women.”
Those are lofty compulsions. And they helped craft a pretty good movie.
A Call to Spy does have some issues, naturally. Bad language can crop up from time to time. and it’s never enjoyable to watch people suffer through torture, or even the threat of torture.
But given the real-life brutalities and atrocities that this film could’ve depicted, A Call to Spy feels rather restrained—designed to teach and inspire rather than shock. This film isn’t about the horrors of war as much as it’s about the people who braved those horrors for a shared worthy cause. And, thankfully, the film never forgets that—keeping its focus on these women and men who risked so much and received so little thanks.
A Call to Spy may not thrill like a James Bond flick. These spies don’t have access to fast cars or nifty gadgets: They’re lucky sometimes to find a place to sleep. But when it comes to the real work of spycraft, the women here make Bond look like the shallow fiction he is.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.