“The Letters” introduces us to a younger, less assured Mother Teresa. She hasn’t fully embraced her calling – caring for the sick, the poor and those often ignored by society. It’s a fascinating way to approach such a complex soul, recalling the roots of a personal transformation that impacted far more than just those in her care.
What emerges is far from fascinating. It’s a by-the-numbers treatment akin to reading a textbook in a monotone voice. It’s safe to bet even her detractors would demand a more robust retelling of her legacy.
“Twas not audible, but it was very clear, direct,” she says of God’s calling.
That begins a battle against both the Church’s political system and an Indian population leery of letting a Christian woman tend to their own. She will not be deterred, and slowly she builds a following of like-minded souls.
“The Letters” offers a few poignant moments, like when Mother Teresa steers an aggressive journalist away from her and toward the poor she’s trying to help.
“That’s the real story,” Stevenson’s Mother Teresa says, hinting at the kind of performance she might give with a more nuanced screenplay in hand.
Capturing Mother Teresa’s life using letters as a narrative device is fraught with obstacles, and the movie trips over every last them. It’s both preachy and talky, transforming even an iconic actor like Max Von Sydow into mere window dressing.
Von Sydow, along with co-star Rutger Hauer, narrates so much of Mother Teresa’s emotional journey it borders on parody.
Mother Teresa drew her fair share of critics during her life and even after her death in 1997. Some alleged her Missionaries of Charity group offered nightmarish conditions and that she forced religious conversations on far too many patients. You won’t see any of that here, although given the film’s tight time focus it would have been hard incorporating those critiques into the narrative.
Consider that one of the few mistakes “The Letters” didn’t make.
DID YOU KNOW: ‘The Letters’ isn’t the first time Hollywood has told Mother Teresa’s story. The 2003 telefilm ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta’ starred Olivia Hussey, while Geraldine Chaplin earned raves for her work in 1997’s ‘Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor.’