You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Letters’

This Mother Teresa biopic offers Hallmark Channel-grade inspiration of the most sluggish sort.

Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini, Kranti Redkar, Aapo Pukk, Mahabanoo Kotwal, Kaizaad Kotwal, Maurya Vijaykumar Lalji, Tillotama Shome, Mark Bennington.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1445208/

“The Letters” spends its first seven minutes jumping among four time periods and five locations — a scattered start emblematic of this Mother Teresa biopic’s general shoddiness. Prefacing scenes with spoiler-ific framing sequences that notify us of what’s immediately to come, and discussing issues it fails to even superficially dramatize, writer-director William Riead’s film is guided by the misconception that its subject matter is so inherently uplifting that it requires almost no artistic effort. Consequently, what it delivers is mere Hallmark Channel-grade inspiration of the most sluggish sort, with Juliet Stevenson’s lead performance as one-note as the peripheral supporting turns from Max von Sydow and Rutger Hauer. No matter its famous historical topic, this turgid retelling of the nun’s story is destined for a swift box office demise.

Riead’s film begins by skittering haphazardly between 1931 Dublin, 1998 India and the Vatican, and then a 2003 Catholic Retirement Rectory, where Father Celeste van Exem (von Sydow) sits down in his modest drawing-room chair to recount Mother Teresa’s tale to Benjamin Praggh (Hauer), who’s been tasked by the Catholic Church with investigating her bid for sainthood. Neither of these gentlemen is properly identified by Riead’s script, which soon has van Exem opining about the “darkness” and “isolation” from God that Teresa felt throughout her life — emotions that are never subsequently seen on screen, as the Mother Teresa we’re introduced to via flashbacks is a cheery, humble woman with a perpetual smile on her face and a look of pious devotion in her eyes.

“The Letters” begins its narrative proper in 1946 Calcutta, where Teresa is working as a teacher at the Loreto Convent School. While she enjoys that vocation, her holy mission is revealed to her during a train ride to Darjeeling during which she hears “the call within the call” from God, telling her to head into the slums and serve the poor. Though Riead depicts Teresa on that train, he chooses not to portray this momentous moment, leaving it to von Sydow’s van Exem to simply describe it — a baffling decision that’s in keeping with the general fondness for stating rather than showing.

Against the wishes of her Mother General (Mahabanoo Kotwal), but with the blessing of the Vatican, Teresa takes to the streets to care for Calcutta’s sick and needy. There, she finds opposition from locals who — having just gained independence from the British in 1947 — view her suspiciously, at least until she exhibits an altruistic desire to teach homeless children the alphabet. Stevenson embodies the noble crusader with physical and emotional self-effacement, but she’s given little to do throughout much of “The Letters” except plainly make her selfless case, and then meekly face the alternately compassionate and angry responses that follow.

Eschewing subtlety at every turn, the film quickly devolves into an obvious work consumed with expository dialogue, none more egregious than that of a radio journalist (Mark Bennington), who bluntly remarks to a colleague, “India and Pakistan have officially joined the family of nations. It’s amazing! I mean, India has finally been given its independence from the Brits,” and then wonders, “So you think India is going to suffer under the burden of its birth as a modern nation?” Such graceless writing is matched by Riead’s flat, inert visuals, which — from quiet instances of Teresa speaking with others, to an unruly protest outside a temple where shehas set up a hospice — are staged with minimal energy and even less imagination.

Riead makes sure to touch upon some of the more notable incidents in Teresa’s life, including her establishment of her own congregation (the Missionaries of Charity) and her 1979 acceptance speech after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Nonetheless, he wholly fails to convey any larger, engaging sense of who the icon was, or what drove her to assume such philanthropic responsibilities. Though much mention is made of Teresa’s feeling that she had been abandoned by God, there’s no actual sign of that distress in “The Letters,” thereby leaving its portrait feeling flimsy and half-formed. Opting for dutiful, reverent beatification over flesh-and-blood characterizations (or insights), the film is merely a clunky primer on how poor storytelling can make even the grandest of figures seem small — a fact that’s true with regard to Teresa as well as von Sydow, in a monotonous, creaky performance best left off his resume.

Film Review: 'The Letters'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., Dec. 1, 2015, MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production: A Freestyle Releasing release of a CinemaWest Films and BSP V production. Produced by William Riead, Lisa Riead, Tony Cordeaux. Executive producers, Corky Barton. Co-producers, Brian Oberholzer, Colin Azzopardi, Mel Hall. Co-executive producers, John Harris.

Crew: Directed, written by William Riead. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Jack N. Green; editor, Andras Ostrom; music, Ciaran Hope; production designer, Aman Vidhate; art director, Chani Satyavolu; set decorator, Agnes Goveas; costume designer, Sandeep Kumar; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Harikumar Pillai; re-recording mixer, Dicken Berglund; visual effects, Digikore VFX; visual effects supervisor, Abhishek More; associate producer, Mary G. Cancassi, Kevin Clay, Dave Hoffman, David Hyun, Ronn Jerard, John J. Lauro Jr., Lorenzo Lorenzetti, Tim McGovern; assistant director, Abhishek Sengupta, Colin Azzopardi; casting, Tess Joseph.

With: Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini, Kranti Redkar, Aapo Pukk, Mahabanoo Kotwal, Kaizaad Kotwal, Maurya Vijaykumar Lalji, Tillotama Shome, Mark Bennington.

More Film

  • Unicorn Store Trailer

    Watch the First Trailer for Brie Larson's Directorial Debut, 'Unicorn Store'

    Brie Larson is seeking salvation from Samuel L. Jackson in Neflix’s first trailer for her directorial debut, the offbeat comedy-drama “Unicorn Store.” Larson is portraying a lonely 20-something dreamer who’s been kicked out of art school. She’s forced to move back home with her parents and take a temp job at a PR agency. But [...]

  • Patti Rockenwagner

    Chief Brand Officer Patti Röckenwagner Leaves STX Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Patti Röckenwagner is leaving STX Entertainment where she has served as the company’s chief brand officer. She announced her departure in a memo to staff, in which she said she was departing for “another opportunity.” The exit is an amicable one. Röckenwagner joined STX in 2016 as its chief communications officer before being promoted to [...]

  • Gabrielle Union

    10 Things We Learned at Variety’s 2019 Entertainment Marketing Summit

    Variety’s 2019 Entertainment Marketing Summit, which brought top execs to Hollywood’s NeueHouse on Thursday, covered considerable ground. From cutting through the noise in an oversaturated media landscape to welcoming exciting technology like virtual reality, industry veterans offered insight into what to expect from the marketing world in coming years. Here are 10 things we learned [...]

  • Orange Studio, OCS Join Forces On

    Orange Studio, OCS Join Forces on Flurry of High-Profile Series

    Following “The Name of the Rose”(pictured) and “Devils,” France’s Orange has unveiled four internationally-driven series projects as part of its commitment to step into premium original shows with its film/TV division Orange Studio and pay TV group OCS both of board. Currently in development, the social western “Cheyenne & Lola,” the dance-filled workplace drama “The [...]

  • 'This Isn’t Spinal Tap': Dishing the

    'This Isn't Spinal Tap': Dishing the Dirt on Motley Crue's Surprisingly Dark Biopic

    The new, eagerly awaited Motley Crue biopic, based on Neil Strauss’ best-selling 2001 book, “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” premieres today on Netflix after a seemingly endless 13 years in development hell. Those anticipating “a fun ‘80s music movie,” as Crue bassist Nikki Sixx puts it, will inevitably be stunned [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' Nabs $7.4 Million on Thursday Night

    Jordan Peele’s horror-thriller “Us” opened huge with $7.4 million on Thursday night in North America. The figure easily topped Thursday preview numbers for “The Nun” at $5.4 million and “A Quiet Place” at $4.3 million and nearly matched “Halloween” at $7.7 million. More Reviews Album Review: Jenny Lewis' 'On the Line' SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. 'Bob' [...]

  • Beatriz Bodegas on Netflix Original: ‘Who

    ‘Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?’ Producer on New Spanish Netflix Original

    BARCELONA – “Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?” is the second directorial outing from Spain’s Jota Linares (“Animales sin collar”) a Netflix Original premiering on Friday, March 22 in competition at the Malaga Spanish Language Film Festival. Starring María Pedraza, Jaime Lorente, Pol Monen and Andrea Ros, the film is the movie adaptation [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content