Writer-director Guy Jenkin does nothing to revolutionize a familiar tale in The Sleeping Dictionary. The story is the stereotyped tale of forbidden love between two individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is about John Trescott, a young, uptight British officer, who is sent to Sarawak from Britain. He is interested in native customs and vies to teach the locals how to excel in knowledge. However to communicate with them he has to know their language. He is introduced to the custom of the sleeping dictionary where a native woman becomes his guide to learning the language as well as his personal concubine.
John embodies strong conservative values. Therefore instead of taking advantage of the situation he rejects the idea. As a result of this there is plenty of tension and bad blood between him and Selima, the beautiful native woman who had been assigned to live with him. However as time passes they become slowly accustomed to each other and fall in love.
Marriage is off limits with the natives though Englishmen are allowed to bed their women. Even though John tries to legalize their relationship duty send him abroad to be married to a British girl. He returns after a year with Cecilia, his wife. Selima and he set eyes on each other again but both have different partners. They are able to rekindle their love in these circumstances and John makes the shocking discovery that he has a son by her. Just when he is about to start a new life again, the tables turn. Cecilia too is pregnant. John is faced with two choices: to continued with his marriage or to lead a life of exile with Selima.
Though you might expect a lot of adult-only shots to be a part of this movie, it is a surprisingly decent romantic drama. There are a couple of nude shots but these are not ones which you can categorize as porn.
An important theme of the story is the expansion and exploitation of the British in the lands that they have conquered. Not only are they able to make use of the country’s natural resources but they also exploit them socially and sexually. They teach them English to make use of their manpower and use women as means of gaining sexual satisfaction. Later they are able to cast them aside for a ‘chaste’ and ‘sacred’ bond: marriage with a woman from their own country.
An unrealistic aura runs throughout the story. You cannot expect a youth who was so passionately opposed to going against his beliefs to merely bend down and take off to his country away from his ladylove so meekly. Likewise you cannot see the same individual creating havoc among the natives and the British group in the country just because he had decided he had made a mistake and wants to return back to his first love. Rather than creating an admirable portrait of John for defining his own kind for love, we get a picture of a naïve school boy carried away by emotions.
The movie needs thorough editing as it is evident that Alba had used a double for her nude scenes. There are instances when a scene is suppose to project her in nude but viewers are able to catch a glimpse of a cloth covering her body.
Jenkin has tried to apply the epic style for the movie but it does not quite work for him. Some lines and incidents look really cheesy against the serious theme that he had tackled. It is yet another hackneyed storyline of forbidden love with slight alterations to the scenes. It has nothing new to offer other than the dazzling sight of Jessica Alba.
This is clearly Alba’s film because she is probably the only one who stands out among the cast. She is an enchanting sight as Selima and portrays her aggressive emotions well. However other than that she too has nothing much to present in The Sleeping Dictionary other than looking pretty. One almost wonders how John could have remained so long with her under the same roof without making any contact. Though Hugh Dancy stars as the protagonist, his character does not leave much impact on the viewers. Other supporting characters, with the exception of a well built English speaking native, are like mere shadows which fade into the scenes.
The scenery, especially the jungle scenes are breath taking. The costumes too are done well and the movie is good for light entertainment.
Ruwini JAYAWARDANA - Daily News