As Part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019.
The largely unknown story of a group of women recruited by the Special Operations Executive during World War II is one that deserves to be told. A fictionalised account, Jackdaws, was published in 2001 by Ken Follett, but it’s fitting that a predominantly female creative team have brought their tale to the screen to coincide in timely fashion with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. The result is passionate and occasionally stirring, if a little cluttered and televisual.
Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), a Romanian Jew who is secretary to the head of the French section of the SOE, begins to recruit female spies to disrupt the Nazi war machine in occupied France. Among the first wave of candidates are the American Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote and produced), and Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). The film follows the efforts of unlikely agents in France, along with the attempts of Atkins to become a naturalised British citizen and join SOE in an official capacity.
Liberté is quick to depict the adversity the women face before they even get out into the field. Virginia has been frequently rejected by the diplomatic corps not just for her gender, but because of a leg lost in a hunting accident as a young woman. Noor is a Muslim pacifist who has to overcome the instinctive racism of the time as well their reluctance to send women. In the end it’s her talent as a wireless operator that weighs the balance in her favour. Vera too faces not-so-cover anti-Semitism in British society as well as suspicion of foreigners in general. Every so often there’s a slip in her cut-glass diction and eyebrows are raised about possible double agents.
Once in France the women quickly begin to prove their worth, although this where the film begins to lose its way slightly. Scenes rush from one to another with little in the way of connective tissue with the result that it often feels disjointed. This does however get across the sense of disorientation and the constant danger of detection, capture and much, much worse. The films also shows the fallibility of those making the calls back in Blighty. They’re seen as being prone to deadly errors of judgement and are clearly making it up as they go along, a burden worn visibly by the impressive Katic as the film progresses. It’s in the tension of huge risks being taken for miniscule victories that the film is most successful.
Eventually, the character of Noor becomes increasingly sidelines. Her efforts are less spectacular than Virginia’s, but there are long periods where she disappears from the story altogether; the victim of an over-stuffed narrative. It may be that we’ve become used to long-form television of the highest quality, but you get the sense that the stories of these women would benefit from the space to breathe that a TV series would afford; to explore them as people beyond simply their motivations to risk all for their country.
Liberté: A Call to Spy is an entertaining wartime drama about remarkable women, not all of whom made it home. The film doesn’t quite do their stories justice, but neither does it completely short-change them. Sometimes rousing, sometimes a little confusing, it’s buoyed by committed performances and an atmospheric depiction of the chaos of war.