'The Letters': Film Review

The Letters - P 2015
Courtesy of Cinema West Films
A lamentable biopic whose cast deserves better.

The early years of Calcutta's most famous do-gooder.

Given her fame and the drama of her mission, it's a little surprising Mother Teresa hasn't inspired a high-profile biopic to date — the most notable tributes being a Family Channel TV movie starring Geraldine Chaplin and an Italian miniseries with Olivia Hussey, best known for Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

Curiously, Hussey starred in one of the rare B-movie features made by info-TV veteran William Riead, who in The Letters now enlists Juliet Stevenson to play the revered nun. Riead intends to both celebrate his subject's good works and humanize her by revealing her inner doubts, which she documented in epistles to a lifelong friend. But his gifts as writer and director aren't nearly up to the task, and this earnest but painfully clunky film, though professional in tech respects and seemingly well financed, plays like the work of an ambitious high school history student. Religious audiences who aren't picky about artistic merit may turn out in large enough numbers to make the picture profitable, but a critical drubbing is assured.

Stevenson, who is nearing 60, plays Teresa from the age of about 36 to nearly 70 (when she was awarded the Nobel prize) with little change in appearance — relying on a shrunken physical presence and broken English to fairly effectively put the illusion across. Her Teresa is a determined but not very interesting person. We meet her when she's still teaching in the Sisters of Loreto's Calcutta school for girls, and see her counsel a student anxious about the Hindu/Muslim conflict outside the convent's walls: A stiff-lipped "try-not-to-worry!" is the best the teacher can come up with, and her subsequent efforts to help the poor around her, however motivated by love, display a similar lack of human-to-human connection. (And many are staged in ways that will seem dreadfully condescending to skeptics in the audience.)

As an illustrated history lesson, The Letters offers a digestible chronology of Teresa's early campaign. But it doesn't expect us to be very quick to understand what's happening. Moved by the sight of destitute communities outside her window, Teresa lobbies for a "decloistering" that will allow her to live among the poor and serve them. The movie offers five or so different scenes whose dialogue spells out the same problem she had making this happen: Nuns are supposed to live in convents, people keep telling her, and the Church found it very hard to understand her request.

These increasingly redundant scenes are almost back-to-back, interrupted only by one meant to establish the historical backdrop of Teresa's work. In a sequence that Ed Wood might have penned had he tackled the subject, two Western journalists exchange these thoughts on Indian Partition:

"I mean, India has finally been given its independence from the Brits."

"With that's going to bring about problems I bet."

"So you think India's going to suffer under the burden of its birth as a modern nation."

Let's move on.

Framing the narrative of Teresa's launch of what will become the Missionaries of Charity is a 2003 storyline in which the postulator investigating Teresa's beatification (Rutger Hauer) interviews the priest who was her spiritual advisor, Max von Sydow's Fr. Celeste van Exem. (The real man died in 1993, but never mind.) Van Exem possessed the eponymous letters, in which Teresa privately acknowledged her deep loneliness and a lifelong "feeling that there was no God in her."

A movie exploring the conflict between Teresa's outward confidence and private "darkness" could be psychologically fascinating. But simply having Von Sydow tell us over and over that she felt "a terrible emptiness" is no substitute for showing that torment in action. Not a trace of doubt or existential despair comes across in scenes of the nun's life, and the script doesn't even dip into those letters (a collection of which was published years ago) to let us hear of it in her own words.

Instead the film moves forward with a task Teresa herself would have lamented: She frequently begged people not to celebrate her, but to focus on the mission she felt God had put in front of her. By emphasizing the anguish she endured while managing to do that work for many decades, Riead does the opposite.

Production: CinemaWest, Riead Production Corporation

Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Max Von Sydow, Rutger Hauer

Director-Screenwriter: William Riead

Producers: William Riead, Lisa Riead, Tony Cordeaux

Executive producers: Corky Barton, Lourden Saks

Director of photography: Jack N. Green

Production designer: Aman Vidhate

Costume designer: Sandeep Kumar

Editor: Andras Ostrom

Music: Ciaran Hope

Casting directors: Mehvash Husain, Tess Joseph

PG, 118 minutes