A CALL TO SPY (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1941 and the Nazis are dominating France. Winston Churchill creates a secret British Intelligence Organization calls Special Operations Executive (SOE). It’s basically a group of spies in France with the purpose of undermining the Nazis. The group is run by Maurice Buckmaster (played by Linus Roache) and after very limited success, the decision is made to recruit women – the thought being they will be less likely to arouse suspicion and can more freely move about. This is really the story of three women, all outcasts in some form. American agent Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) is one of the first female spies to go to France. British Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) is a highly skilled Air Force wireless operator (communications), and Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, “Castle”) is a Jewish Romanian immigrant charged with recruiting women to the program. For those who enjoy trivia, Ms. Atkins also served as Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise.

Greetings again from the darkness. Virginia Hall should be famous. Oh sure, history buffs know her name, but usually she’s a blip in book or article about WWII. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher was Oscar nominated as Producer for the excellent CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013), and here she serves up the first film featuring Virginia Hall and her contributions. Sarah Megan Thomas (EQUITY, 2016) wrote the screenplay and stars as Ms. Hall.

Virginia Hall remarkably overcame her wooden leg … an appendage she named “Cuthbert” … and was rejected in her quest to become a US Diplomat. Noor faced down the stigma of being a dedicated pacifist – a difficult hurdle in the middle of a war. Vera Atkins was never able to be fully trusted by her co-workers due to her Jewish background. While we are exposed to the plights of each of these women, there is actually very little interaction between the three, which creates an unusual story structure. The bulk of the time goes to Virginia Hall, and that’s understandable given her history, participation, and accomplishments. We witness how she excels in enlisting and inspiring citizens and volunteers to join the resistance, and creates multiple networks that impacted some many of the Allied troops.

An excruciating water torture scene occurs pre-opening credits, and then over the opening credits, director Pilcher slyly works in each of the key players. The concern over women during this era as Buckmaster is concerned the recruits “won’t last a week”. It would have been interesting if we were privy to a bit more of the training “in sabotage and subversion”, but it’s likely some of that training still occurs today; although the point is made clear that this was trial and error, with an emphasis on error.

The female spies were nicknamed the “Baker Street Irregulars”, and they definitely accomplished their mission of changing the course of the war. Klaus Barbie (the Butcher of Lyon) is shown trying, and failing, to hunt down Virginia Hall, whose life was always in danger once she became known to the Nazis. And it’s that danger that is the movie’s Achilles. The sense of danger should be suffocating and relentless, and instead only pops up periodically here. The stories of these courageous folks must be told, but with that comes the ever-present danger they experienced. This is just a bit too much to overlook.

watch the trailer

 
 

THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

watch the trailer: