A biopic about Mother Teresa could have easily been a self-important slog, yet William Riead’s “The Letters” proves a stirring and absorbing if not quite definitive drama. This handsomely mounted and shot film is anchored by a lovely lead turn by the wonderful English actress Juliet Stevenson (“Truly Madly Deeply,” “Bend It Like Beckham”), who embodies the humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize-winner with humility, grace and a gentle dose of charisma.
The action largely takes place between 1946 and 1952 when then-Sister Teresa, a Yugoslav émigré and Catholic nun, left her post as headmistress of the Loreto convent school in Calcutta to answer “the call within a call": to live and work among the poorest of the poor. In 1950, with the Vatican’s blessing, she would start her own congregation, the Missionaries of Charity.
Although she was on the noblest of paths, the woman who would become known worldwide as Mother Teresa faced her share of conflict and personal strife during this period and beyond. Acrimony from Loreto’s Mother General (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal), pushback from Hindu loyalists and Mother Teresa’s growing feeling of isolation and abandonment by God, are squarely, credibly depicted.
Riead employs a framing device here, one that’s set mostly in 1998, the year after Mother Teresa’s death. It involves a meeting in which her longtime friend and spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), shares a cache of deeply felt letters Mother Teresa wrote to him with one Benjamin Praagh, a Vatican priest (Rutger Hauer) postulating for her sainthood. (She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.) Although a sensible gateway to the film’s flashback structure — and it’s always a pleasure see the venerable Von Sydow — these latter-day scenes can feel a bit forced and didactic.
Purists and skeptics may take issue with Riead’s uber-saintly portrayal of his lead character; he eschews the financial, medical and theological controversies that would eventually follow Mother Theresa. But taken on its own purposeful terms, this warmly wrought portrait of one woman’s love, devotion and self-sacrifice should enlighten and inspire receptive viewers.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic material including some images of human suffering
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release