(2002)2Dana RowaderThe Sleeping Dictionary is a slow, melodramatic period drama that promises more than it delivers. The issues at hand -- colonialism, the cultural differences between the British and the natives, mistreatment of indigenous peoples, even prostitution -- are handed poorly, and are often used just as an excuse to provide context for the central love story and its inevitable melodramatic complications. All of this has been done before in innumerable films -- and much more effectively. The leads, Jessica Alba and Hugh Dancy, certainly look the part of a seemingly doomed Romeo and Juliet-like couple who brood just as beautifully as they make love. However, most of the film weighs too heavily on Alba's ability to be pouty, alluring, exotic, and charming, though she delivers on all counts. Playing a glorified prostitute who serves as both a teacher and a lover to appointed British officers, Alba is the heart of the film, and is totally believable as a woman with whom many a man could become infatuated. It is less clear what she sees in Dancy's naïve, uptight Englishman, and we are forced to accept that they are truly in love based solely on the fact that they say so. Also, even though Alba's Selima is supposedly half-English, it's hard to accept that she is essentially one of the natives, since she looks nothing like them, save for a great tan and a somewhat convincing accent. With a talented supporting cast, including the likes of Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Noah Taylor, and Emily Mortimer, one would have hoped for much more. Blethyn is suitably stern and conniving as the British matriarch, and Mortimer, as the eager, plain but beautiful wife whose love for her husband is not returned, almost conjures up enough pathos to push the film into the realm of real drama. But Hoskins comes across somewhat dull and one-dimensional, as does Taylor, the film's rather pathetic attempt at a villain, whose actions, though certainly reprehensible, seem clichéd and unconvincing. All of these actors have done much better work in other films, so the blame for their performances has to be placed on the writing and direction. That said, The Sleeping Dictionary is not entirely unenjoyable. The cinematography is as gorgeous, lush, and impressive as any period romantic drama could hope for, and, along with the alluring Alba, is the main reason for watching this film.
Guy Jenkin directs this straight-to-video romantic drama shot on-location in Malaysia. In the rainforests of Boreno in the 1930s, English officer John Truscott (Hugh Dancy) accepts a position to colonize the native population of Sarawak at the request of the British government. In following with the native tradition, he is given the services of a servant, Selima (Jessica Alba). A position that British officers refer to as a "sleeping dictionary," she is a concubine to share his bed and teach him the local language. The tradition forbids romantic entanglements, so the relationship is watched over by superior officer Henry Bullard (Bob Hoskins) and his wife, Aggie (Brenda Blethyn). When Selima and John fall madly in love, they enrage both the colonizers and the colonized. Also starring Emily Mortimer and Noah Taylor.