New Line // 2002 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // March 12th, 2003
Learn to speak her language
John Truscott is a fresh out of university Englishman who is sent abroad to polish his skills as a government official for the Empire. He is stationed in Sarawak, Malaysia under the guidance of professional Imperialist, the regional Governor Henry Bullard. The Iban, a tribe of friendly headhunters, inhabits the area. They are the native people he has been sent to help civilize. John has a dream (as did his late father) of educating the Iban children in a traditional European school system. But Henry warns that he will not make any real progress until he learns their language and customs. So, per tradition, the Governor arranges for Selima, a half British/half Iban native girl to become John's "sleeping dictionary." Her job is to teach the neophyte officer the language of the indigenous population. She is also his concubine, willing to instruct him on the language of physical love as well. Soon, John's feelings for Selima grow more passionate and personal. But the Western snobs, who feel that the only proper woman is a cultured English one, frown on this type of feral relationship. After a tragic incident between natives and Dutch smugglers, John finds himself blackmailed by Henry into marrying his daughter. But he still loves his sensual, seductive native paramour. And he may be willing to turn his back on all he knows (and face a very uncertain future) to be with her.
There are so many good things about Sleeping Dictionary that when it stumbles along the way, you are likely to overlook the stutters and continue on for the idyllic, borderline melodramatic romance ride. This is a visually stunning film, avoiding those boring travelogue style moments to really give the audience a taste and feel for the heat, humidity, and majesty of Malaysia's rainforests (the movie was actually shot in Sarawak, the film's setting). A beautiful, moving musical score by Simon Boswell accents the scenes with a minimal flourish of aural wonder. And the talent is first rate, with each and every actor doing a splendid job in his or her period role. But this doesn't completely erase the aspects that go awry here. The basic problem with Sleeping Dictionary can be stated in one clear sentence. Director Guy Jenkins has no idea how to time out his scenes to maximize emotional impact and minimize narrative tedium. On at least three separate and potentially powerful occasions in the film, he undercuts the raw passion or heartbreaking realism of a scene by quickly moving on to something else, long before the emotion has had a chance to fully resonate with the audience. Other times, he prioritizes superfluous aspects of the narrative or the set design to take over and slow his storyline down to a virtual halt. What Sleeping Dictionary needs more than anything else is that single spark of inspiration, that one theme or thread that engulfs the audience's heart or head and pulls them along for the duration, cheering and/or fearing the next scene or sequence. But what we get, instead, are moments of brilliance surrounded by occasional utter nonsense.
The film is really divided into two halves, the first being much better than the second. In part one, our hero arrives in Malaysia and learns his fate at the hands of the still perseverant old guard of the British Empire. Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mona Lisa) twists his usually broad cockney bark into a cool, suave upper class gentleman's accent so convincingly it takes you a second to realize that it really is his voice on the soundtrack. His acting performance bolsters what is an underwritten role. Newcomer Hugh Dancy does a remarkable job of maturing onscreen, moving from naïve newcomer to jaded officer effortlessly over the course of the film. But what most fanboys and lovers of James Cameron's short-lived sci-fi television series Dark Angel will be concerned with is Jennifer Alba. With her exotic good looks and lithe, elongated body, she is picture perfect as an Iban princess. Her dialect may be a little "Bali Hai" at times, but overall she is very convincing. Unfortunately, her body double is not. (Sorry guys, while there is plentiful nudity, it's not her.) But once John has married Henry's daughter and Brenda Blethyn's none to subtle villainous mother is forced to the forefront, the movie hiccups. The second half becomes scattered, unfocused, and tiring. While the main narrative drive is the issue of "will the lovers reunite," it takes some decidedly talky and unnecessary scenes to get us there. And by the time our patience is rewarded, we realize we just might not care anymore. Luckily, the ending is not cheap, but pays off nicely in a manner that does not seem obvious or overly pat. Sleeping Dictionary is a lovely film full of beautiful images and fine acting. Unfortunately, the individual behind the camera found himself lost in this wild, untamed jungle one too many times to forge a great film.
New Line Cinema's treatment of Sleeping Dictionary is decidedly low key. As this is a small period romance that will not appeal to everyone, this is understandable. Especially since they give us a fantastic picture and sound. The 1.85:1 transfer is flawless. The foliage is green, the water a golden caramel, and the final shot sunset will take your breath away. Occasionally the image looks too good, as if optically altered to supersaturate the lushness of the surroundings. As does the Dolby Digital Soundtrack options. Each is fully immersive (DTS was unavailable to this reviewer) and offers a sharp, clean channel-exploiting mix. As stated before, the music is exceptional and combined with the ambient noises of the rainforest, make you feel like you're actually in Sarawak with the characters. New Line misses a chance, though, with the extras. While they offer several nice trailers for other interesting titles, there is nothing here about the "truth" behind the sleeping dictionary tradition. It would have been nice to know if there really was such a thing in the areas that Britain colonized or if it was merely a fictional contrivance of the writer. Also, some cast filmographies would have been nice, since many of the actors seem "haven't I seen them before" recognizable. While not a completely successful film, Sleeping Dictionary still has many qualities that will satisfy the incurably idealistic and the avid Harlequin reader alike. With a more focused direction, however, this could have been something magical and moving. Instead, it's just decent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R