“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.