Fortunately, Liberté: A Call to Spy has an ensemble cast that proves more compelling than the film’s slightly clumsy title. Telling the tale of women recruited by Britain to spy in Nazi-occupied France, it is a fascinating story rendered a little less impactful by the film’s pacing and structure.
The bulk of the narrative follows Sarah Megan Thomas (who also wrote the script and produced) as Virginia Hall. Virginia has been undeservedly rejected from service as an American diplomat in London on account of her wooden leg. As a result, she is available to be recruited alongside Noor (Radhika Apte) as part of a scheme spearheaded by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) to embed women in the resistance against the Nazi occupation in France. Virginia builds an extensive network in France over the course of the film, impressing with her clear skill and aptitude for the dangerous work.
The film clearly sets out to highlight the achievements of women in this role during World War II (there were 39 in total recruited as part of the operation). In that regard, Liberté does very well in the figure of Megan Thomas’s Virginia. She is portrayed as extremely confident and adept in her spy work, and the actor’s firm and conviction-laden delivery of her dialogue convince us fully of this. Noor is slightly less adept at the dynamics of spying (instead she is a skilled ‘wireless’ radio operator) but has her determination and resolve aptly communicated by Apte. Stana Katic is less at home in the role of Vera. Her speech is plummy to the point of parody, and until quite far into the film her most distinctive character feature is jauntily-angled hats. In fairness to her, the character’s Romanian Jewish background is fairly skimmed over and feels tacked on in comparison to the backgrounds of Noor and Virginia.
Those backgrounds are used to highlight the more contemporary, progressive aims of the film’s themes – that the war effort was not one fought solely by fully physically able white men – such that it can resonate through to the present day. The backgrounds of the three central figures hew closely to those of the real-life women they are based on. In addition to Vera’s family and Virginia’s struggles with acceptance, Noor’s background is the most varied of them: her father was an Indian Muslim, her mother was American, and she spent time in Russia and Paris growing up. For the most part, this aspect is communicated well and the performances are all up to snuff in getting across the personal struggles these women went through (of which there were 39 in the real-life program).
Where the film stumbles is in the pacing and construction of the story. Given that the film is a narrative feature and not a documentary, fascinating backgrounds will not carry the film alone. The film maintains very single-gear pacing, albeit reasonably quick, which is perhaps a function of a rather aimless script.
We begin early in World War II, and there is little the film narratively builds towards in terms of the story, despite covering most of the war’s period. During this time we see Virginia build her network, and avoid the authorities but little else happens that would allow the story to shift gears. The film constantly skips over potentially dramatic moments to leave the details off-screen. Even though this is done to focus on the characters, it renders their story a little more dull as a result. When Virginia suffers the results of the authorities catching up to her, the film then has her go on seemingly endless mountain hike. Peril is introduced for other characters in different forms, but these are effectively separate strands to that of Virginia’s story.
If the goal is to make the audience aware of the extraordinary dedication and sacrifice of the real women recruited into the Special Operations Executive, then Liberté succeeds. However, despite a number of plus points, this film will hopefully not be the definitive telling of their story.